WASHINGTON—The Bikini Atoll, site of dozens of U.S. nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958, was the subject of a Capitol Hill debate over U.S. federal oversight versus native self-governance Tuesday.   

The 167 inhabitants of Bikini voluntarily left the island in 1946 with the promise of an eventual return, but tests in 1968 showed that the atoll was still dangerous to humans. Now numbering 2800, that population has since resided on a series of smaller islands nearby such as Ejit and recently, Kili, in the Marshall Islands. 

Members of the Bikini Local Council, who represent the Bikinian population in exile, attended a Senate hearing on a bill which would re-establish federal control over a $110 million trust fund for the people of the Bikini Atoll. 

Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) opened the hearing by expressing a sensitivity to the self-determination of the Bikini Islanders, but also emphasized that the United States had a role to play.  

“Ensuring that the Trust Fund is utilized for the people of Bikini in a manner that is consistent with its intent and statutory purpose is also our responsibility,” she said.   

A federal law passed in 1982 established the $110 million fund for the people of Bikini Atoll but provided the Department of the Interior with veto power over any expenditures from the fund. A resolution passed by the Local Council in August of 2017 rescinded that arrangement, and the DOI ruled that it no longer had any control over the trust fund, leaving it entirely in the hands of the council mayor.  

Anderson Jibas, the council’s mayor, opposes a return to federal control. “[T]his committee has introduced legislation which frankly takes us back to a colonialist and paternalistic system that says the bureaucrats in a federal agency know what is best for the people of Bikini,” he said. 

In 2001, a group of experts determined that it would cost $361 million to rehabilitate the island. 

In addition to the $110 million from the trust fund, The Nuclear Claims Tribunal, charged with settling claims resulting from nuclear testing, awarded the people of Bikini $251 million, which they then requested from Congress. The federal government refused the request. 

Under the current resolution, Jibas has unilateral authority as mayor to withdraw money from the fund, with no interference from the DOI’s Office of Insular Affairs, which formerly oversaw the trust. Since ending the oversight of the Office of Insular Affairs, Jibas has withdrawn $11 million for 2018, more than twice the average annual budget.  

Bikinians, however, are split on whether breaking with the federal government is a good idea. Jack Niedenthal, an American expatriate who has resided among the Bikinians for 37 years and handled the cooperation between the islanders and the government, called the mayor’s handling of the trust irresponsible, emphasizing that the fund would need to support the Bikinians for several more years before a return to Bikini Atoll is possible. 

Mayor Jibas claimed, however, that the $11 million withdrawal was to be used for rebuilding the parts of Kili Island which were damaged by intense weather in recent years. He also intends to launch income-generating projects such as revitalizing the tourism and scuba diving industry by investing in reliable air transport.  

Niedenthal testified that the Senate bill, which would limit annual withdrawals from the fund to 5% of the principal, was a necessary but overly restrictive step. He proposed an alternative plan which would require the government of Bikini to submit a detailed annual budget for DOI approval.