U.S. Nuclear Weapons Testing: the Runit Nuclear Tomb

Runit Dome. Iimage from wikipedia

[The debris left by the United States nuclear testing at the Marshall islands  were buried under] a vast structure is known as the Runit Dome. Locals call it The Tomb. Below the 18-inch concrete cap rests the United States’ cold war legacy to this remote corner of the Pacific Ocean: 111,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris left behind after 12 years of nuclear tests.  Brackish water pools around the edge of the dome, where sections of concrete have started to crack away. Underground, radioactive waste has already started to leach out of the crater: according to a 2013 report by the US Department of Energy, soil around the dome is already more contaminated than its contents.  Now locals, scientists and environmental activists fear that a storm surge, typhoon or other cataclysmic event brought on by climate change could tear the concrete mantel wide open, releasing its contents into the Pacific Ocean….

Enewetak Atoll, and the much better-known Bikini Atoll, were the main sites of the United States Pacific Proving Grounds, the setting for dozens of atomic explosions during the early years of the cold war.  The remote islands – roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii – were deemed sufficiently distant from major population centres and shipping lanes, and in 1948, the local population of Micronesian fishermen and subsistence farmers were evacuated to another atoll 200 km away.  In total, 67 nuclear and atmospheric bombs were detonated on Enewetak and Bikini between 1946 and 1958 – an explosive yield equivalent to 1.6 Hiroshima bombs detonated every day over the course of 12 years.

The detonations blanketed the islands with irradiated debris, including Plutonium-239, the fissile isotope used in nuclear warheads, which has a half-life of 24,000 years.  When the testing came to an end, the US Defence Nuclear Agency carried out an eight-year cleanup, but Congress refused to fund a comprehensive decontamination programme to make the entire atoll fit for human settlement again.

The DNA’s preferred option – deep ocean dumping – was prohibited by international treaties and hazardous waste regulations, and there was little appetite for transporting the irradiated refuse back to the US.  In the end, US servicemen simply scraped off the islands’ contaminated topsoil and mixed it with radioactive debris. The resulting radioactive slurry was then dumped in an unlined 350-foot crater on Runit Island’s northern tip, and sealed under 358 concrete panels.

But the dome was never meant to last. According to the World Health Organization, the $218m plan was designed as temporary fix: a way to store contaminated material until a permanent decontamination plan was devised.  Meanwhile, only three of the atoll’s 40 islands were cleaned up, but not Enjebi, where half of Enewetak’s population had traditionally lived. And as costs spiralled, resettlement efforts of the northern part of the atoll stalled indefinitely.  Nevertheless, in 1980, as the Americans prepared their own departure, the dri-Enewetak (“people of Enewetak”) were allowed to return to the atoll after 33 years.

Three years later, the Marshall Islands signed a compact of free association with the US, granting its people certain privileges, but not full citizenship.  The deal also settled of “all claims, past, present and future” related to the US Nuclear Testing Program – and left the Runit Dome under the responsibility of the Marshallese government.  Today, the US government insists that it has honoured all its obligations, and that the jurisdiction for the dome and its toxic contents lies with the Marshall Islands.  The Marshallese, meanwhile, say that a country with a population of 53,000 people and a GDP of $190m – most of it from US aid programs – is simply incapable of dealing with the potential radioactive catastrophe left behind by the Americans.

Today, Runitis still uninhabited, but it receives regular stream of visitors heading from neighboring islands to its abundant fishing grounds or searching for scrap metal to salvage.…Three decades after the Americans’ departure, abandoned bunkers dot the shoreline, and electric cables encased in black rubber snake across the sand.Nowhere on the beaches or the dome itself is there a warning to stay away – or even an indication of radioactivity.

The US has yet to fully compensate the dri-Enewetak for the irreversible damage to their homeland, a total amounting to roughly $244m as appraised by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal.+++ Many locals are deeply in debt, and dependent on a supplemental food program funded by the US Department of Agriculture, which delivers shipments of process foods such as Spam, flour and canned goods. The destruction a centuries-old lifestyle have lead to both a diabetes epidemic and regular bouts of starvation on the island….

Other – and more worrying – traces of Enewetak’s history have also reached China: according to a 2014 study published in Environmental Science & Technology, plutonium isotopes from the nuclear tests have been found as far a the Pearl River Estuary in Guangdong province.

Many people in Enewetak fear that one day the dome will break open, further spreading highly radioactive debris.  As catastrophic weather events become more frequent, recent studies – including 2013 study of the Runit Dome’s structural integrity carried out by the DoE – have warned that typhoons could destroy or damage the cement panels, or inundate the island. A 2013 report commissioned by the US Department of Energy to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory acknowledged that radioactive materials are already leaching out of the dome, but downplays the possibility of serious environmental damage or health risks….

Independent scientists say that salvaging Runit’s scrap metal may expose locals to much higher risks.“Those guys are digging in the dirt breathing in stuff in hot spots. That has to be hundreds of thousands times higher doses of potential health effects than swimming,” said Ken Buessler, a senior scientist and marine chemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who visited Runit and gathered samples of sediment in the lagoon earlier this year…

“Why Enewetak?” asked Ading, Enewetak’s exiled senator during an interview in the nation’s capital. “Every day, I have that same question. Why not go to some other atoll in the world? Or why not do it in Nevada, their backyard? I know why. Because they don’t want the burden of having nuclear waste in their backyard. They want the nuclear waste hundreds of thousands miles away. That’s why they picked the Marshall Islands.” “The least they could’ve done is correct their mistakes.”

Excerpts from Coleen Jose et al., The radioactive dome on Enewetak atoll, Guardian, July 3, 2015

+++In June 1983, the Agreement Between the Government of the United States and the Government of the Marshall Islands for the Implementation of Section 177 of the Compact of Free Association (referred to as 177 Agreement) established the Claims Tribunal “with jurisdiction to ‘render final determination upon all claims past, present and future, of the Government, citizens and nationals of the Marshall Islands which are based on, arise out of, or are in any way related to the Nuclear Testing Program.”The Tribunal was established in 1988.

See also UN Human Rights report Mission to the Marshall Islands

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