Another chapter in the 30-year nuclear odyssey of the Marshallese will unfold this week when a frail, 85-year-old chief from Enewetak Atoll pleads with Congress for money to reestablish his people on their home island even though the government claims it is still too radioactive for safe habitation.
Over the past three years, the United States has spent $100 million and used 4,000 men to clean up the islands of Enewetak that were the site of 43 nuclear weapons tests between 1947 and 1968.
The aim of this unprecedented nuclear cleanup was to make the southern islands of the atoll safe for living. The northern ones -- where most of the explosions took place -- were to be decontaminated to a point where they could be visited.
Traditionally the Enewetak people have lived divided -- some in the south, on Enewetak Island, and some in the north, on Enjebi Island.
During the 32 years of enforced exile from their home atoll, the two groups have lived together on the island of Ujeland -- but they have not liked it.
Now, because the cleanup of Enjebi has been more successful than expected, the people who once lived there want to go back.
The Department of Energy sponsored a surveyy of Enjebi last year and found radioactive cesium, strontium, cobalt and americium still in the soil.
The DOE scientists estimated that people living on the island and eating the food grownn there would be exposed to low-level radiation that is two to four times what Environmental Protection Agency standards allow.
They also projected this exposure as meaning anywhere from a 2 percent to 4 percent increase in cancers among the exposed people over a 30-year period and a somewhat smaller increased risk -- about 2 percent -- in birth defects.
Faced with these findings, the Interior Department, which is managing the resettlement program for Enewetak, refused to prepare homes on Enjebi and continued to plan for all the Enewetak people to live in the southern islands of the atoll.
The Enewetak people, however, hired their own experts through their lawyers, the Micronesian Legan Services Corp. These scientists, two of whom served on a arecent National Academy of Sciences panel on low-level radiationn effects, concluded that there would be a risk to those living on Enjebi, but not as great as was being predicted.
"It is entirely possible," their report said, "that this radiation exposure will never result in even a single case of disease among either the returning population or their descendants."
Last September, a dose-assessment conference was held for the Enwetak people at their exile island of Ujeland.
Basic materials and color booklets in both Marshallese and English were prepared to explain the complexities of radiation and the effects on health.
The DOE officials presented their findings and the scientists hired by the Enewetak people gave theirs.
When it was over, the Enewetak people of both the northern and southern islands passed a unanimous resolution saying that "they have sufficient information to make an intelligent decision" and that "the people of Enjebi shall and must return to live on the island of Enjebi."
They also called on the United States to assist in that resettlement since they don't have the money to do it themselves.
It is estimated that some $4 million would be needed to resettle the expected 180 Marshallese who will want to return to Enjebi.
The Interior Department, according to a letter this month to Enewetak's lawyers, has had the matter under study since October, and even the EPA is reported rethinking its opposition to resettlement.