U.S., Marshall Islands Sign Deal on Nuclear Testing Impacts

March 2023
By Daryl G. Kimball

After months of wrangling, negotiators from the United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on a new Compact of Free Association agreement that will govern relations between the two nations for the next 20 years.

A satellite image of the craters caused by U.S. nuclear testing in 1946–1958 on Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. When well water was detected as radioactive in 1977, islanders were forced to leave. They are still unable to safely return.  (Photo by Gallo Images/Orbital Horizon/Copernicus Sentinel Data 2021 via Getty Images)Joseph Yun, special envoy for compact negotiations, signed the MOU for the United States and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Kitlang Kabua signed for the Marshall Islands on Jan. 12 in Los Angeles. That same day, the United States also signed an MOU for a new compact with the island nation of Palau. On Feb. 10, the United States signed a similar MOU with the Federated States of Micronesia.

The funding provisions for the current agreements with the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia expire in September 2023 and for Palau in September 2024.

The extension of the compacts will guarantee the United States exclusive military rights over large areas in the Pacific region at a time of increasing tension and competition with China. The three island nations were formerly U.S. territories that came under the direct control and administration of the United States during World War II. Combined, they cover a maritime area larger than the continental United States, include some 1,000 islands and atolls, and have a population of approximately 200,000 people, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS).

The MOUs outline key agreements expected to be reflected in the final compacts. Negotiations on an updated compact between the United States and the Marshall Islands, the details of which must still be hammered out, have been particularly contentious. (See ACT, November 2022.)

The new compact with the Marshall Islands will extend U.S. military basing rights at the Ronald Reagan Missile Defense Site on Kwajalein Atoll and U.S. security rights across the island chain. It also seeks to update and expand U.S. financial and technical assistance to the Marshall Islands, including for the health and environmental damage caused by the 67 atmospheric nuclear test explosions conducted between 1946 and 1958.

After World War II, the U.S. military forcibly displaced thousands of people in the Marshall Islands to allow for nuclear weapons testing and other military activities, which have severely damaged the health and environment and livelihoods of the Marshallese.

The U.S. nuclear test explosions totaled about 108.5 megatons, which is the equivalent of one Hiroshima-size bomb every day for 20 years and more than 100 times the total explosive power of all the atmospheric tests carried out at the Nevada Test Site. The nuclear tests caused severe and widespread fallout, including at levels that resulted in immediate, observable harm, such as hair loss, vomiting, diarrhea, and burning of the skin, and a greatly elevated longer-term cancer risk.

The Bikini and Enewetak atolls suffered the most severe direct physical devastation from the testing. Land, lagoons, coral reefs, and the oceanic environment remain contaminated over six decades later. A large radioactive waste disposal site, the Runit Dome in Enewetak Atoll, was created for radioactive waste from Marshall Islands testing and from the Nevada Test Site. It is leaking, and the Enewetak lagoon contains about 100 times more plutonium than the inventory under the Runit Dome.

Under the first compact with the Marshall Islands in 1986, a nuclear claims tribunal was established and mandated that the United States place $150 million in a trust fund to pay for the nuclear-related claims and awards. But the compact released the United States from legal liability for all further claims related to the nuclear testing program and its long-term impacts. The tribunal later concluded that the United States should pay $2.3 billion in claims.

This difficult experience has led the Marshall Islands negotiators to urge the United States to provide more financial and technical support to address ongoing health, environmental, and economic issues resulting from the Cold War-era testing in their homeland.

In a Sept. 29, 2022, joint declaration, the United States said it “remains committed to addressing the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ ongoing environmental, public health…and other welfare concerns.”

Yun said that, under the new MOU, the United States would pay “nuclear-affected communities’ health, welfare and development,” including building a new hospital, the Associated Press reported on Jan. 12.

Yun also said the amounts will be far greater than what the United States had provided in the past and that the Marshallese would be given control over how that money is spent.

Pursuant to past Marshall Islands compacts, the United States provided grant assistance worth approximately $661 million and $309 million on nuclear test-related assistance and compensation, respectively, between 1987 and 2003. During the second compact term, from 2004 to 2023, U.S. grant assistance and trust fund contributions totaled $722 million and $276 million, respectively, according to the CRS.

According to a copy of the U.S.-Marshall Islands MOU obtained by Arms Control Today, key agreements in the document include U.S. assistance of $50 million annually beginning in fiscal year 2024, $200 million over 20 years for joint health care programs and a new joint strategic health initiative, and funding for technical assistance and expertise to cope with the climate impacts that threaten the existence of the low-lying islands and for environmental programs.

In addition, the MOU provides for $10 million for improving accessibility to documents and information relating to the U.S. nuclear testing program, $5 million for a museum and research facility on that testing program, and $700 million for a “repurposed trust fund for priorities determined by the Marshall Islands in accordance with procedures to be mutually agreed.”

With the MOUs concluded, separate agreements regarding the services to be provided under U.S. law by U.S. federal agencies to the Marshall Islands, Palau, and Micronesia will be negotiated and become part of the final compact arrangements. The final compacts must be approved by the U.S. Congress.