Apocalypse Now? America's nuclear 'Tomb' on Marshall Islands is ticking time bomb as climate change weakens protective dome
If the Runit Island Dome were to break, all of its 73,000 m3 of radioactive debris, including some plutonium-239 could seep into the Pacific with disastrous consequences
If America's nuclear "Tomb" breaks open, all of its 73,000 m3 of radioactive debris, including some plutonium-239 could seep into the Pacific and the consequences of that could be thoroughly horrifying. But the thing is, it would be the people of the Marshall Islands that would suffer first hand and most.
Between 1946 and 1958, the United States blasted 67 nuclear bombs on the Enewetak Atoll of the Marshall Islands, leaving craters on the ground and a trail of badly disfigured babies, among other things. Four of Enewetak’s 40 islands were vaporized.
“The Marshall Islands were selected as ground zero for nuclear testing precisely because colonial narratives portrayed the islands as small, remote and unimportant,” said Autumn Bordner, a former researcher at Columbia University’s K=1 Project speaking to the Los Angeles Times.
The US cleaned up the contaminated soil on Enewetak Atoll - where they also conducted biological weapons tests -- and put in 130 tons of irradiated soil from Nevada. They then took the worst of the debris and the soil and buried it within the Runit Island Dome which is now at the risk of breaking because of climate change, reports the LA Times.
The US kept the information that it had shipped soil from its atomic testing to their country in 1958 from the Marshallese. They didn't tell the Enewetak residents that they had conducted biological weapons tests with aerosolized bacteria at their island, the report states.
The tomb is the size of 35 Olympic pools, the investigation says - a giant sphere of 3.1 million cubic feet. As the sea levels rise and the glaciers melt, the dome is on its way to collapsing. The Americans have refused to help this small country, saying since it is on their land it is their problem.
"I’m like, how can it [the dome] be ours?" Hilda Heine, the president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, said in an interview in her presidential office in September, according to the Times.
"We don’t want it. We didn’t build it. The garbage inside is not ours. It’s theirs."
Earlier this year, reports found that the radiation in parts of the Marshall Islands was higher than Chernobyl and Fukushima. The research conducted by Columbia University showed that the nuclear isotope concentration in some islands were way above the legal exposure limit established in agreements between the US and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The researchers measured soil samples, ocean sediment and a variety of fruit.
In 1982, a typhoon hit the island and a US Department of Energy report from 2013 found that the concrete dome had weathered with minor cracking of the structure - but what was inside was leeching out into the island.
But it is the US' responsibility and the Marshall Islands is a victim to its actions, said Michael Gerrard, a legal scholar at Columbia University’s law school to the Times. "More than any other place, the Marshall Islands is a victim of the two greatest threats facing humanity — nuclear weapons and climate change. The United States is entirely responsible for the nuclear testing there, and its emissions have contributed more to climate change than those from any other country."
He had told ABC in November 2017 that "the bottom of the dome is just what was left behind by the nuclear weapons explosion. It’s permeable soil. There was no effort to line it. And therefore, the seawater is inside the dome."
"Blackish liquid" is said to pool around the rim of the dome's surface and water washes over it in a big enough storm, Gerrard said at the time.
“We didn’t know the Runit Dome waste dump would crack and leak…. We didn’t know about climate change,” Jack Ading, a Marshallese senator from Enewetak Atoll told the Times, "We weren’t nuclear scientists who could independently verify what the U.S. was telling us. We were just island people who desperately wanted to return home."
Out of the $2.3 billion in claims that was meant to be paid to the Marshallese, the U.S. has paid just $4 million.
plutonium-239 is one of the most lethal substances on Earth and has a radioactive half-life of 24,100 years.