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Virtual event brings together people impacted by U.S. nuclear legacy via The Fig Tree

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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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