You know all those above ground nuclear tests the US performed in the '50's? The legacy is still with us, and by 'us' I mean i) Marshallese, and ii) anyone interacting with the Pacific.
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 (DNA – later the DoE) 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.Skanky as congress was not to fund full decontamination, it probably wouldn't have worked anyway.
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.Ya think?
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.
There is no Marshallese word for contamination.
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.
With sea levels projected to rise three feet by 2100, Runit Dome could be submerged within a generation.
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.
“The waste within the dome is at least contained. There aren’t too many concerns for the Runit Dome to pose a threat to local people,” said Terry Hamilton, the scientific director for the Marshall Islands Program of the DoE-commissioned Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Hamilton said that cracks in the concrete were merely the result of long-term drying and shrinkage, but said the DoE was planning to carry out cosmetic repairs in order to restore public confidence.
The DoE insists Enewetak is safe for human settlement today, and says it monitors local residents, groundwater, crops and marine life for radiation. Separate checkups are carried out on those suspected of digging for scrap metal.
Though Enewetak is not allowed to sell its copra and fish, Hamilton insists the produce would satisfy safety standards on the international market.
But locals complain that basic information – including results of their own tests for exposure to plutonium – is not readily accessible to them.
Independent scientists say that salvaging Runit’s scrap metal may expose locals to much higher risks.