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Rising sea levels threatens U.S. nuclear waste dump in Pacific

Enewetak Atoll is a large coral atoll of 40 islands in the Pacific Ocean and forms a legislative district of the Ralik Chain of the Marshall Islands. With a land area total less than 5.85 square kilometers (2.26 sq miles), it’s not higher than 5.0 meters (16.4 feet) and surrounds a deep central lagoon, 80 kilometers (50 miles) in circumference.

Enewetak Atoll has almost been forgotten by history, except in the minds of the people who still inhabit some of the islands. But the older residents teach their children – “We call it the tomb,” says Christina Aningi, the head teacher of Enewetak’s only school.

Huge dome covers the top of a crater left by one of the 43 nuclear blasts  on Enewetak Atoll in the ...

Huge dome covers the top of a crater left by one of the 43 nuclear blasts, on Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands
, US Defense Nuclear Agency/AFP/File

“The children understand that we have a poison on our island.” Only three islands along Enewetak Atoll’s slender rim are considered safe enough for human habitation.

The few hundred people living on the main island cannot fish or harvest coconuts, staples of their traditional diet. The U.S. Department of Energy has even banned the export of fish and copra from Enewetak because of the ongoing contamination.

Residents have to rely on foodstuffs like imported canned and processed goods like Spam being brought in by barge. This diet has triggered health problems such as obesity and diabetes.

Test Bravo  a 15-megaton nuclear detonation 1 000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped o...

Test Bravo, a 15-megaton nuclear detonation 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was detonated on Bikini atoll.
United States Department of Energy

Nuclear warhead testing by the U.S.
The United States detonated 43 nuclear bombs around the island chain from April 14, 1948, until August 18, 1958, with five of the tests taking place on Runit Island, a small island in the Enewatak Atoll. The last test on the island, called “Cactus,” was the detonation of an 18 kiloton warhead and took place in May 1958.

The people of Enewetak were evacuated at the beginning of the tests. However, additional nuclear testing took place during the cold war between 1977–1980, bringing the total number of nuclear detonations to 67. the nuclear detonations have devastating wildlife, spreading nuclear toxins far and wide while creating massive craters.

A 15 kiloton nuclear weapon exploded but did not undergo nuclear fission on Runit, scattering plutonium-239 over the island. Runit Island is not habitable for the next 24,000 years, which is why it was chosen for the nuclear waste repository. (Wargo, John. Green Intelligence: Creating Environments That Protect Human Health. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009, p. 15.)

The 100-meter wide crater on Runit Island was deemed a good place to dump as much soil contaminated ...

The 100-meter wide crater on Runit Island was deemed a good place to dump as much soil contaminated with plutonium as possible. Chunks of unexploded plutonium-239 were also disposed of in the hole.
Google Earth

A radiological survey took place between 1972 and 1973. Based on the findings, $100 million was set aside for decontamination of the atoll. A temporary dome was to be used to store all the nuclear waste collected, using the “Cactus” blast crater on Runit Island. Three decades later, the residents were allowed to return to Enewetak Atoll, but Runit Island was off limits.

The U.S. government’s cleanup plan
The original plans for the storage facility called for the porous crater to be lined with concrete, but the U.S., in all its wisdom, decided the cost was too much. The U.S. military dumped over 111,000 cubic yards (85,000 cubic meters) of contaminated soil and debris, including chunks of unexploded plutonium, into the 30-foot (9.1 meters) deep, 350-foot (110 meters wide crater created by the May 5, 1958, “Cactus” nuclear weapons test.

“The bottom of the dome is just what was left behind by the nuclear weapons explosion,” says Michael Gerrard, the chair of Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York. “It’s permeable soil. There was no effort to line it. And therefore, the seawater is inside the dome.”

Military personnel boarding an LST 45 at Hawaii  prior to departure to Eniwetok to participate in th...

Military personnel boarding an LST 45 at Hawaii, prior to departure to Eniwetok to participate in the experimental atom bomb tests. (Circa: 1948).
Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

A dome composed of 358 concrete panels, each 18 inches (46 centimeters) thick, was constructed over the crater, and the final costs of the cleanup, including the building of the dome, came to $239 million. “[The other islands were] too hot, too radioactive to worry about,” says Giff Johnson, publisher of the Marshall Islands Journal, the country’s only newspaper.

A disaster waiting to happen
Today, there are renewed concerns, not only because of the ongoing radiation contamination but concerns over climate change and rising sea levels that will inevitably cause the concrete dome to collapse, washing deadly plutonium-239 into the Pacific Ocean. The dome is deteriorating and could be breached by a typhoon.

After visiting Runit Island in 2014, Professor Michael Gerrard, with Columbia University, wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times about his visit and concerns. In writing about the possibility of the dome being breached by a powerful storm, Gerrand wrote: “But a 2013 report sponsored by the Department of Energy saw no reason to worry. “Catastrophic failure of the concrete dome,” it said, “and instantaneous release of all its contents into the lagoon will not necessarily lead to any significant change in the radiation dose delivered to the local resident population.”

U.S. troops returned to the Marshall Islands to work on radiation cleanup from 1972 to 1980. On the ...

U.S. troops returned to the Marshall Islands to work on radiation cleanup from 1972 to 1980. On the island of Runit, radioactive materials were mixed with cement and buried in a blast crater, which later was sealed under an 18-inch-thick concrete dome.
Lawrence Livermore National Lab

According to the U.S. government, the atmosphere, water or whatever we want to call it, is dirtier outside the dome than it is inside. However, plutonium isotopes recently discovered in the South China Sea have been traced to the Marshall Islands, some 2,800 miles away.

Because of rising sea levels, many islands in the Marshall Island chain are now uninhabitable. On Runit Island, cracks are visible on the dome’s surface and brackish liquid pools around its rim. “Already the sea sometimes washes over [the dome] in a large storm,” says Gerrand.

“I’m persuaded that the radiation outside the dome is as bad as the radiation inside the dome,” says Professor Gerrard. “And therefore, it is a tragic irony that the US Government may be right, that if this material were to be released that the already bad state of the environment around there wouldn’t get that much worse.”

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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