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Past Atomic Tests Make Islanders Wary of Returning

Kelen Joash has made many sacrifices on behalf of the US atomic-testing program.

In 1946 he and his family left homes on Bikini Atoll and nearly starved on another atoll while the United States exploded bombs in Bikini's lagoon.

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In the 1960s they were moved several times and then sent back to Bikini. A decade later they were evacuated again when the soil, plants, animals, and people were found to be contaminated with radioactive cesium. A number of recent scientific studies say that, with some expensive remediation, people could live safely on the main island, provided they avoid eating coconuts, coconut crabs, and other local foods. But, as Mr. Joash says, "it's a little harder to believe [the scientists] the second time around."

Now Joash is considering whether it's finally safe to return. Like most Bikinians, he would like official word from Bill Clinton. "He's the president of the country that did this to us," Joash says. "It's important that he be the one to assure us that it's safe to return. Then we'll all sit down and talk about it."

All across the Marshall Islands, a former US trust territory in the Central Pacific, refugees created by the atomic-testing program are weighing the risks and benefits of going home. Meanwhile, their lawyers and political leaders say that previous financial settlements with the US won't be nearly enough.

"The US has admitted that they were responsible for what happened," says Oscar de Brum, chairman of the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, a Marshallese agency that judges individual cases. "But the money the US has allocated is manifestly inadequate to compensate those injured by the testing."

Using a US trust that was initially funded at $46 million, the tribunal is rapidly running out of money and is only able to make partial payments. It has already awarded, if not paid, $63 million using criteria modeled on US "downwinder laws" that compensated fallout victims in Nevada and New Mexico. Mr. de Brum is urging the Marshallese government to take up the issue with the US Congress.

Claims so far deal with health problems, but even more expensive property claims are on the way: Residents of Eniwetok Atoll, where the US exploded 43 nuclear weapons, already have filed a $235 million claim with the tribunal.

James Matayoshi is the mayor of Rongelap Atoll, whose inhabitants received high radiation exposure during a 1954 hydrogen bomb test and had to leave their island. He says his community's $45 million allocation "would only be enough to clean up one of the 30 islands on Rongelap."

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The situation is similar for Bikinians, whose $90 million would allow for the cleanup of only one of the 23 islands that survived the tests there. Their Washington attorney, Jonathan Weisgall, is preparing a case to bring before Congress by the end of the decade.

A Western diplomat here says the US would review the cases, although it generally regards the $270 million it has paid to the tribunal and affected communities as a full and final settlement.

Joash would like to go home if it's truly safe, but he is saddened by the vaporization of one of his favorite places.

"What are the people of America going to give us for those islands?" he asks. "Those were once bird- and oyster-collecting islands, and now there's nothing there. They're just part of the sky."

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