Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2020
Between 1946 and 1958, the US performed 67 nuclear bomb test explosions in the Marshall Islands, equaling 1.6 Hiroshima-size explosions a day for twelve years. The Marshallese people were relocated away from testing sites, but did not escape the radioactive fallout that spread through the islands, causing burns, birth defects, and cancers. Some were purposely allowed to return to radioactive areas to inform US research. In the 1970s, over 110,000 cubic yards or 3.1 million cubic feet, of plutonium-contaminated soil and debris from the bomb tests were collected and abandoned on Runit Island under the “Runit Dome,” an unlined crater—left by a bomb test—covered with a concrete cap.
In 2019, Congress ordered the Department of Energy to address the threat of radioactive material leaking from Runit Dome, and to draft a repair plan. The DOE’s 2020 report claims the dome “is not in any immediate danger of collapse or failure,” but does admit that rising sea levels could affect the stability of the cracked contrete. Groundwater contamination could increase and, the report says, “no definitive data exists on how these events might impact the environment.” The DOE planned a groundwater radiochemical analysis program, though it’s now paused due to current travel restrictions. The DOE claims that rising levels of plutonium found in lagoon waters near the dome are due to existing contamination in sediments, not from materials spreading from the unlined crater. A dome repair plan was not included in the DOE report, although according to the World Health Organization the dome was never a long-term solution.
Since the report was based soley on US government data, critics have demanded an independent evaluation of the dome’s condition. US Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and Rhea Moss-Christian, Chair of the Marshall Islands Nuclear Commission, accuse the DOE of downplaying the health and environmental risks posed by rising sea levels and storm surges on the dome’s decrepit concrete. Moss-Christian’s commission has condemned the lack of consultation between the DOE and independent scientists or the Marshallese people. The absence of data in the report makes it “disappointing,” said Rep. Gabard, who even called it “flippant.” Moss-Christian said, “So my main takeaway from the report is that many risks are still ‘unknown.’” —CM