Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2015
The Republic of the Marshall Islands sits just six feet above sea level, and residents, scientists, and activists are now concerned that climate change will cause the Pacific to engulf the sites there that are still contaminated with radiation from US nuclear tests, including a leaking cement dome that was built in 1979 to hold 110,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris.
The Runit Dome is on the Enewetak Atoll, which was contaminated along with the Bikini Atoll with large quantities of plutonium from US nuclear bomb tests. In a limited clean-up effort, the US dumped contaminated soil, along with 437 plastic bags of plutonium chunks left strewn on the ground from misfired bombs, into an unlined, 33-foot-deep Hiroshima-size bomb test crater. They covered the site—which wouldn’t even meet US household waste landfill standards—with panels of 18-inch concrete. There are no warning signs or fences around the area; though the island has no permanent residents, locals desperate for income scavenge for metal scraps there, digging into the soil near the site.
A 2013 US Department of Energy report found that a breach of the dome by seawater or a catastrophic weather event would not result in a significant change in the radiation dose delivered to the local population—because the radiation inside was dwarfed by that already present in the lagoon outside of it. An inspection that same year found cracks in the concrete and noted that the radioactive groundwater underneath it rises and falls with the tides.—The Guardian, July 3, 2015; New York Times, Dec. 3, 2014
Editor’s Note: The 2011 film Nuclear Savage by Adam Jonas Horowitz documents the US’s racist and unjust use of Marshall Islanders as test subjects to study the effects of radiation on the human body.