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Brief return (to Rongelap) brings joy to nuclear exiles By Giff Johnson, Marshall Islands Journal



August 19, 2002

Majuro Rongelap islanders danced in the streets of Rongelap yesterday, bringing joy to this nuclear test-affected atoll not seen in decades.

"Rongelap is rising up once again," Republic of China representative Randy Wang said at the dedication of phase one resettlement work that has built a new dock, paved the airfield and roads, constructed a power plant and fresh water-making units, and completed a base camp with air-conditioned accommodations. "When I saw the singing and dancing on the tarmac this morning I knew there is a bright future for Rongelap," he added. The Rongelap ceremony brought 700 Rongelap islanders from other islands to the atoll on three boats and two special Air Marshall Islands flights. Although the return was only for several days in order to celebrate completion of the phase one resettlement work, it brought excitement to residents of this displaced community, many of whom were making their first visit to Rongelap.

Rongelap was engulfed in a snow storm of radioactive fallout from the 1954 Bravo hydrogen bomb test at Bikini. Islanders evacuated the atoll in 1985 fearing continued radiation exposure from the environment, a move that forced health and environmental studies confirming the need for cleanup and remediation on the atoll. In response to cleanup needs, the U.S. government provided a $45 million resettlement trust fund in the late 1990s, the interest from which has been used to fund the first phase of building basic infrastructure that can support a population on the atoll in the future. The start of phase two housing and community facilities is scheduled to begin in 2003, together with ongoing environmental cleanup efforts. Currently, only about 30 construction workers and U.S. scientists live on Rongelap.

"We can do nothing to erase what happened in the past," said U.S. Department of the Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary (for Insular Affairs) David B. Cohen, one of several high-ranking Americans to join the Rongelap celebration. "But we can control the future. The only way to give meaning to the sad events on this atoll is to insure that the U.S., Marshall Islands and Rongelap governments work together as partners to rebuild a society here that is stronger, more vibrant and healthy than it ever would have been if the horrible events (of 1954) had not happened."

Rongelap Mayor James Matayoshi said that the completed phase one, and phase two work that is expected to commence next year, will make a return to Rongelap not just a hope for the distant future, but a real possibility in the near future.

Rongelap elder Hemos Jilej said that if scientists confirm that the atoll is safe for the people to return to, he will move back.