By David Brunnstrom and Michael Martina
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More than 100 arms-control, environmental and other activist groups have urged the Biden administration to formally apologize to the Marshall Islands for the impact of massive nuclear testing there in the 1940s and '50s and to provide fair compensation.
The activists, led by the by the Arms Control Association and including Greenpeace, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Marshallese Education Initiative, made the call in a Dec. 5 letter to President Joe Biden. The text was made available to Reuters.
It urged Washington to deliver on promises of nuclear justice in ongoing negotiations with the Marshall Islands on renewing a Compact of Free Association (COFA) that has been the basis of relations with the Pacific territory since the 1980s.
COFA provisions will expire in 2023 for the Marshall Islands and another Pacific territory, the Federated States of Micronesia, and with Palau in 2024.
The island nations still enjoy close ties to Washington, but analysts warn a failure to reach new terms for economic aid could spur them to look to U.S. strategic rival China for funding or increased trade and tourism.
Marshall Islanders are still plagued by health and environmental effects of the 67 U.S. nuclear bomb tests there from 1946 to 1958, which included "Castle Bravo" at Bikini Atoll in 1954 - the largest U.S. bomb ever detonated.
Though the State Department says Washington already reached a full and final settlement for the nuclear legacy under past agreements, a State Department official told Reuters last month it was "exploring a variety of areas in which the United States might provide broad assistance" to address ongoing needs.
Asked to comment on the letter, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council referred to a statement at a 2022 summit with Pacific island nations that Washington remained "committed to addressing the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ ongoing environmental, public health concerns, and other welfare concerns."
The letter signatories welcomed this statement, while noting that as well as coping with the legacy of nuclear testing, the low-lying Marshall Islands were on the frontlines of the global climate disaster, adding:
"Now is the time for the United States to step up and meet its responsibilities by delivering on these important steps for Marshallese people through the new Compact of Free Association."
They said that as well as issuing a formal apology and meeting compensation claims, Washington should support long-term environmental remediation, expand access to healthcare, especially for illnesses associated with radiation exposure, and declassify documents related on nuclear testing.
Separately on Tuesday, the State Department said the United States had signed a memorandum of understanding with Palau as part of its COFA talks affirming a close and continuing partnership "and reflecting our consensus reached on levels and kinds of future U.S. assistance to be requested for Palau’s economic development."
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Michael Martina; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)