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'I want our people to experience justice'

Q&A Ariana Tibon-Kilma, chair of the Marshall Islands National Nuclear Commission



Ariana Tibon-Kilma


Micro Waves By Jack Niedenthal

 Ariana Tibon-Kilma, at the age of 27, has just been named the new chair of the National Nuclear Commission. Established in 2017 by the RMI Parliament (Nitijela), the commission is tasked with developing a national strategy for nuclear justice resulting from the 67 U.S. nuclear and thermonuclear tests conducted on Bikini and Enewetak Atolls from 1946 to 1958. 


I spoke to Ariana on the occasion of the 70th commemoration of the 15 megaton Bravo thermonuclear hydrogen bomb blast.  This horrific weapon, detonated on the morning of March 1, 1954, in the northwest corner of Bikini Atoll, was 1000 times more powerful than the two nuclear weapons used in Japan at the end of WWII. It vaporized three islands and sent the ash 100,000 feet into the air, which then drifted eastward and showered the Marshallese people living on the northern Marshalls with high-level radiation.


Pacific Island Times:  You are young, how is it that you connected so strongly with these events that occurred so long ago and then became so passionate about seeking justice for your people?


Ariana Tibon-Kilma:  Being someone who was born and raised here, and went to school my whole life here while not really learning about these events other than the annual March 1st Nuclear Victims Day memorial ceremony or essay/poster contest, my curiosity drove me to dive deeper into the issues surrounding the nuclear testing. I am a direct descendant from both Rongelap and Utrok Atolls which received the heaviest doses of high-level radioactive fallout from the Bravo blast. 


While in college, I wrote most of my research papers on the nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands. This was a subject not many of my professors or classmates even knew about, and by doing this research I gained a great deal of knowledge about what happened. 


PIT: Were there any particular people from whom you directly learned of our nuclear history?


Ariana:  From my grandmother on my father’s side, Amenta Matthew, who is a former senator from Utrok Atoll, I have learned a lot. My grandfather on my mother’s side was Nelson Anjain, and though I never met him, I researched his life and learned of his amazing advocacy efforts for the people of Rongelap here in the RMI, in Japan and around the Pacific. I felt like the nuclear legacy torch was being passed to me from my elders, so to dignify their lives I decided to carry it forward. 


While studying in the U.S., I realized they hardly ever talked about anything that happened out here. The Marshall Islands nuclear testing is a sad piece of U.S. history that just kind of disappeared. 


PIT:  So here we are, 70 years out from the horrific events arising from the Bravo blast that did so much damage to the people and the islands. The people of Rongelap still aren't back in their homeland, the people of Bikini still haven’t returned, the northern islands of Enewetak Atoll can't be lived on and has the massive cement dome on Runit Island filled with dangerous nuclear waste, Utrok still has issues even though they are back on their islands. What are some of the other pressing concerns that you believe still haven't been addressed by the U.S. government?



Ariana: I feel strongly that the overall nuclear legacy narrative should change.  The narrative should be that the entire Marshall Islands has been contaminated because this whole ‘4 atoll theory’ is a U.S. narrative and not accurate. 


Many of my peers I worked with at the College of the Marshall Islands when we were trying to recruit students just to join the CMI Nuclear Club, felt left out saying, “Oh we're not from the ‘4 atolls.’” In a sense, everyone here has been affected by the nuclear testing. We all need to feel that we are part of this legacy and that we are obligated to keep reminding the world of what happened out here. These terrible events should be a stark reality check for the rest of humanity. 


The other pressing matter is healthcare. I understand further compensation is a big ask at this point, but we cannot put a price on people's lives. The poor health of our people is a long-standing concern and much of it stems directly from the nuclear testing period.  I'm not just talking about cancer. It's the wide array of non-communicable diseases that our people suffer from because of the drastic changes in our diets and because our displaced populations have grown to depend on imported, processed, unhealthy foods like white rice, flour and sugar.


Our health should be first and foremost. Once we lose a loved one, we can't get them back. But again, changing the historical narrative also becomes important in addressing this issue. 


PIT: Tell us about the National Nuclear Commission and the importance of your work.

  

Ariana: When the NNC was first established we held a public consultation and information session.  As the NNC Education & Public Awareness coordinator, it was one of the NNC’s goals and part of my work plan to develop a curriculum. So I spent the summer of 2020 with the public school system curriculum developers and the SPC to integrate the nuclear legacy into the PSS Social Citizenship Education program. This program covers human rights, nuclear justice and climate change. Though this history dates back nearly eight decades, the consequences, harm, and trauma of the tests continue to this day.


PIT: As the new NNC chairperson, how would you like to see this all play out for the people of the RMI?


Ariana: I would like to see a future in which every Marshallese knows and fully understands the nuclear history and the effects that the nuclear legacy has had on our lives. The more educated we are, the better choices we make. For example, if we had been learning more about our nuclear legacy in our schools, I'm sure by now we would have doctors who specialize in healthcare focusing on radiation illnesses, and the attorneys at the AG's office would be more focused on human rights, disarmament and non-proliferation issues.


I would like to see a future in which the victims who had claims adjudicated by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal by the end of 2006 receive their awards in full. There is currently $2.2 billion in outstanding claims that have been fully adjudicated, $3.4 billion in today’s dollars.  The outstanding personal injury claims now stand at $31 million in today’s dollars. 


We need to keep pressing to get quality healthcare for our people, a U.S. standard of healthcare and not just for cancer.


Finally, I just want our people to experience justice.  “Justice” can mean different things to different people and the various complicated situations they find themselves in after the nuclear testing period so many years ago, but what matters most to me is lifting the quality and dignity of people's lives. We should prioritize educating our children and our communities and advancing our need for better healthcare because I believe addressing these two issues will get us closer to achieving a collective sense of justice for the people of the Marshall Islands.


Jack Niedenthal is the former secretary of Health Services for the Marshall Islands, where he has lived and worked for 42 years. He is the author of “For the Good of Mankind, An Oral History of the People of Bikini,” and president of Microwave Films, which has produced six award-winning feature films in the Marshallese language. Send feedback to jackniedenthal@gmail.com

 



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