Virtual event brings together people impacted by U.S. nuclear legacy
For the virtual Washington-Marshall Islands Nuclear Remembrance Week March 15 to 20, organizers gathered many groups affected by U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958, and survivors of other bombings and test sites, people impacted by mining, transport, processing and clean-up, and young people.
Each day focused on different aspects of the history under the overall theme of "We Are Not Alone" to remind participants that their many voices together can have power. Participants told their stories to encourage healing, remember victims, honor survivors and protect future generations.
People joined on Zoom or on the Facebook page of the nonprofit Compact of Free Association (COFA) Alliance National Network (CANN) of Washington.
COFA is the international agreement establishing relationships between the United States and the sovereign states of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau.
On Monday, an intergenerational panel from Spokane's Marshallese community included two elders who survived nuclear testing, Bubu Erine Jitiam and Sam Levai, and two youth, Laura Daniel and Catherine Loeak.
The elders told how U.S. nuclear tests vaporized several islands and atolls, and radiative contamination left some islands unfit for habitation. The tests dislocated people, destroyed their culture, damaged the land, sea and marine life, but few in the U.S. knew what took place.
Although they were in their 20s then and it is now 64 years since the testing, their fear and pain continue.
"People and animals kept dying," said Bubu, who gave birth to three babies who died soon after birth with birth defects.
Catherine found only brief mention of the Bikini bomb in a history class. Through high school and college, she wrote about it and now uses social media to amplify messages.
On Tuesday, three speakers—Twa-le Abrahamson-Swan of the SHAWL (Sovereignty Health Air Water Land) Society, Samantha Redheart of the Environmental Restoration and Waste Management program of the Yakama Nation, and Trisha Pritkin of Consequences of Radiation Exposure—told how U.S. nuclear programs affected the Spokane and Yakama tribes, and people living near Hanford.
In addition, the Rev. Senji Kaneada, a Buddhist monk, and Emma Belcher, president of the Ploughshares Fund, connected concerns to the peace movement.
Francine Anmontha Malieituua of the Marshall Islands National Nuclear Commission connected the speakers.
The session opened with a video of Deb Abrahamson, who died Jan. 1, speaking at Indigenous People's Day, telling of her life as a warrior for justice against the Midnite Mine's uranium contamination that caused the cancer that took her life at 66.
Uranium from the mine was processed at Hanford for the bombs tested in the Marshall Islands. People in those sites suffer similar cancers and illnesses.
Deb's daughter Twa-le, Samantha and Trisha continue to tell their stories and educate about the effects of nuclear production from people exposed to radiation and toxins from mining uranium through nuclear waste that contaminates the lands and waters of the Yakama Nation and affect people living downwind of Hanford. That facility also produced the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Twa-le, former air quality specialist with the Spokane Tribe of Indians and is a River Warrior, is committed to "share our stories and connect our communities."
"When we started organizing it was important to travel with our elders, so I went to meetings with my mother," she said. "We knew the issues would last generations. It's important to have young people involved in organizing because even as progress is made, it will take time.
"In the last few years we saw some deregulation. The impact will be ongoing, so we need to stay in touch with each other," she said.
Samantha, who has been on the technical staff of the Confederated Yakama Nation's environmental program since 2009, not only keeps people informed on cleanup at Hanford but also educates Yakama youth in science, law and STEM.
"Hanford is a multigenerational challenge," she agreed. "Because we are impacted, the Yakama nation has strict cleanup guidelines. The Columbia River must be protected. Our homeland cannot be a sacrifice zone to nuclear waste. The Yakama Nation Treaty of 1855 cannot be abrogated by the Department of Energy (DOE). Local communities can participate virtually in public meetings, as work continues to protect Yakama cultural sites.
The DOE recently tried to reclassify 66 million gallons of high-level waste at Hanford as low-level. That would contaminate the Columbia River. She summarized decades of progress removing millions of tons of contaminated soil, treating millions of gallons of ground water, cocooning six reactors, demolishing hundreds of buildings and removing two old test reactors, but said there is more to do.
A video, "A Future Worth Fighting For," suggested options for action at Columbiariverkeeper.org.
Transitioning to the next speaker, Francine affirmed: "We stand with all who are affected by nuclear wastes."
Trisha, an attorney, has worked for more than 30 years for justice for those who, like her family, lived downwind from Hanford—and other Manhattan projects and Cold War nuclear weapons production and testing sites. Many suffer with or have died from radiogenic cancers and illnesses from exposure.
Her 2020 book, The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices from the Fight for Atomic Justice, introduces the stories of 24 personal injury plaintiffs in litigations filed by people injured because of Hanford's decades of secret offsite radiation releases. The stories provide real-life illustration of the devastation to health and life from exposure to the fallout from production, testing and use of nuclear weapons.
In 2005, Trisha formed a nonprofit, Consequences of Radiation Exposure, as a voice for populations around the world exposed to ionizing radiation.
Born and raised in Richland, the community closest to Hanford, she said that "in utero, in infancy and in childhood, I was exposed to the airborne radioactive byproducts of plutonium production." She ingested it with milk products in her vulnerable years, but did not learn about exposure until 1988, after being sick for years. She suffers from autoimmune thyroiditis (hashimotos), hypothyroidism and hypo-parathyrodism.
"We are not alone," Trisha said. "We are more powerful when we raise our voices in solidarity. This is the first time I have ever been to an event that brings so many groups together. This event is visionary."
Trisha is glad that Medicaid and children's health insurance have been reinstated by the COFA for Marshallese in the U.S., but people in the islands have no cancer care specialist to treat them there.
"I stand in solidarity with Marshallese to achieve nuclear justice that includes: 1) paying claims from the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, 2) providing quality health care for the Marshallese, 3) reducing exposure to radiation in the environment, 4) building national capacity to understand the impacts, and 5) educating people on the nuclear legacy.
"The theme, 'We Are Not Alone,' is important. We are all fallout-exposed civilians—downwinders, Marshallese, other Pacific Islanders and Americans, including uranium miners, millers and transporters, military veterans who observed the tests or came to the cleanup, test site workers and family members of all those groups.
"We have been disrespected, disregarded and mistreated by the U.S. government that exposed us without regard for our welfare or notifying us of the dangers we faced," she said.
Trisha called those affected to stay informed of their interconnection, be aware their exposure is the legacy of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, seek compensation and form a Frontline Community Advisory Group to unify all exposed groups for nuclear justice. She also called for creating a unified online archive of stories telling the impact of fallout on people.
Francine reaffirmed, "We need to stand together and share our stories."
Senji of the Nipponzan Myohoji Temple Buddhist Order on Bainbridge Island has been engaged in the anti-nuclear, peace, non-violence, social justice and environmental movement worldwide for many years. He has organized and participated in many peace walks, connecting with nuclear frontline communities.
He joined peace marches at the Nevada Test Site and at the Bremerton Nuclear Base with people of all races and religions.
"Human beings need to walk and pray together to stop nuclear weapons," said Senji, who was born in 1963 on Kyushu Island where Nagasaki is. His parents, who were teachers and peace activists, took him in August 1989 to visit the museum in Nagasaki. Scared and shocked by what he saw, he joined an annual peace conference with people from Africa, Europe and America, people of more skin colors than he had ever seen in his village.
"Now, I live in Washington State where the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was produced," he said, adding that he hopes to coordinate peace marches with the Spokane Tribe and downwinders, because "people of diverse backgrounds should walk, pray and act together."
Emma, former advisor in Australia's National Security Department and International Affairs and former staff with the Australian embassy in Washington, D.C., added perspectives from work with Ploughshares.
"Pacific communities, indigenous people and people of color are most impacted by nuclear weapons but policy debate is dominated by abstract, technical ideas on strategy and systems," she said. "It's easy to overlook the human toll, especially on those disproportionately affected.
"Ploughshares values equity and justice as we address humanitarian consequences and real world impact of nuclear weapons. Voices of Pacific Islanders and other communities are essential in the debate to craft better, saner policies, said Emma, who grew up in Australia and was outraged as a teen about French atmospheric testing in the Pacific. "It led me to seek a more just, peaceful, and safer world free of nuclear weapons.
"We need to increase support for disarmament and build a movement of people committed to eliminate nuclear weapons," she said. "COVID has shone light on the need to reassess U.S. national security policy that spends hundreds of billions each year in defense."
Ploughshares Fund seeks to redefine national security to focus human needs not weapons.
Wednesday's session included speakers from the National Association of Atomic Veterans, the Navajo Nation, Pacific Association for Radiation survivors, the Tularosa Basin Downwinders and Children of Atomic Veterans.
On Thursday, filmmaker Brian Cowden shared his video, "Voices: Our Water World on Fire." Speakers included Giff Johnson, editor of the Marshall Islands Journal, Marshallese people in Arkansas, and descendants of Enewetak and Bikini.
Friday's session focused on Enewetak cleanup veterans.
Saturday celebrated the COFA Medicaid restoration and included statements by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, Washington Rep. Rick Larsen, and Washington State Rep. Marcus Ricelli. They also honored journalists who have helped Marshallese tell their stories in media and videos.
Students Leimama Wase and Lilly Adams led a discussion on priorities: 1) health care access, 2) cleanup and environmental remediation/climate change solutions, and 3) compensation.
They discussed the need to 1) have medical facilities in the islands, 2) train Marshallese doctors, 3) care for veterans silenced for years and now suffering health issues, 4) clean up radiation so people can grow food and eat the fish, and 5) curb rising sea levels to protect the Runit Dome over nuclear waste on the Bikini Atoll.
For information, visit https://www.facebook.com/CANNWashington to see all the programs and to follow future actions.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, April, 2021