Nuclear mattersU.S. court dismisses Pacific nuclear test lawsuits

Published 2 February 2009

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests at the Bikini and Enewetak atolls; the residents of the two islands were removed before the tests and settled elsewhere; the residents were awarded more than $1 billion, and a judicial panel says this is enough

A panel of U.S. appeal judges Friday dismissed a claim to enforce a billion-dollar compensation settlement for islanders from two former Pacific nuclear test sites, an attorney for the islanders said. The attorney said, however, that the ruling did not exonerate the U.S. government for removing the residents of Bikini and Enewetak from their homes and leaving their atolls uninhabitable after the weapons tests.

A three-member panel of judges upheld a lower court ruling which dismissed claims filed in 2006 by the people of Bikini and Enewetak in the Marshall Islands, a former U.S. territory in the Western Pacific. The two atolls, the sites of sixty-seven U.S. nuclear tests from 1946 to 1958, had been awarded more than one billion dollars by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal for hardship, loss of use of the islands, and clean up following the tests.

The tribunal was set up in a 1986 test settlement agreement with the U.S. government, but it lacked funds to pay the award and the two communities took legal action to force Washington to honor the compensation. The appeals judges said that settlement, in also providing a 150 million dollar trust fund for nuclear compensation, removed U.S. jurisdiction with the provision that the compensation constituted “the full settlement of all claims, past, present and future.” The judges did suggest the case had merit, but said that without jurisdiction they “cannot hear, let alone remedy, a wrong that is not within its power to adjudicate.”

Bikini attorney Jonathan Weisgall said the ruling did not exonerate “America’s stain” of displacing the people of Bikini and “using the atoll to help win the Cold War but taking completely inadequate measures to clean up the islands.”