Nukewatch Winter Quarterly 2019-2020
By John LaForge
From opposite ends of the Earth, radioactive wastes left by the US military are colliding with climate disruption—icecap melt and sea level rise—threatening to further contaminate the oceans.
In the Greenland icecap, the US military dug 120 feet down into ice in 1959 and excavated enough to build a small “town.” Intended as an anti-Soviet nuclear missile launch site, the Pentagon carved over 1.5 miles of ice tunnels and chambers into the ice for laboratories, a dining hall, a recreation area, work space, a hospital, and living quarters for up to 200 soldiers, according to news accounts. Unfortunately, Camp Century, as it was called, was lit and heated by the world’s first “mobile” nuclear reactor.
When the site was abandoned in 1967, the military reportedly packed out the reactor vessel, but left behind 9,000 tons of biological, chemical and radioactive waste, “on the assumption it would be ‘preserved for eternity’” by the island’s historically perpetual accumulation of snow and ice, Jon Henley wrote for The Guardian.
In the years since, ice and snow cover above the dump has increased to about 110 feet, but today’s rapidly accelerating heating of the climate means the waste could eventually be uncovered, and melting ice water could potentially carry the toxins into the Atlantic. A study of this unplanned eventuality, led by William Colgan from Toronto’s York University, was published in Geophysical Research Letters. Colgan told The Guardian, “Our estimate is that by 2090, the exposure will be irreversible. It could happen sooner if the magnitude of climate change accelerates.” Indeed, global temperature rise over the last four years has greatly outpaced the most severe scientific models, and last July was the hottest recorded in human history.
Meanwhile, Susanne Rust, reporting for Los Angeles Times, wrote recently that, “… on a far-flung spit of white coral sand in the central Pacific, a massive, aging and weathered concrete dome bobs up and down with the tide.”
While Greenland’s melting ice helps propel sea level rise, 10,000 miles away on Runit Island, in the Anewetak Atoll of the Marshall Islands—where the US conducted some 67 nuclear bomb detonation experiments—a giant cement-covered radioactive waste dump site is being threatened by the rapidly rising seas.
Under the cement cover known as Runit Dome, there are over 3 million cubic feet of deadly radioactive waste left by the US military’s nuclear bomb testing authorities. Like the US waste in Greenland’s warming ice, radioactive military debris is threatening to spread to the rising Pacific partly because of US industry-led carbon and methane pollution. As Susan Rust reported , “Now the concrete coffin, which locals call ‘The Tomb,’ is at risk of collapsing from rising seas and other effects of climate change. Tides are creeping up its sides, advancing higher every year as distant glaciers melt and ocean waters rise.”
“More than any other place, the Marshall Islands is a victim of the two greatest threats facing humanity—nuclear weapons and climate change,” said Michael Gerrard, a legal scholar at Columbia University’s law school, the LA Times article noted. “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,” Gerrard said.