The concrete dome on an island in the Pacific Ocean houses tons of radioactive waste. Now it’s cracking open. The escaping waste could soon seriously affect the environment and the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands.
Enewetak Atoll, and the much better-known Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, were the main sites of the United States Pacific Proving Grounds, the setting for dozens of atomic explosions between 1947 and 1958. In total, 67 nuclear and atmospheric bombs were detonated on Enewetak and Bikini. Numerous islanders were forcibly evacuated from ancestral lands and resettled in another atoll. Thousands more islanders were exposed to radioactive fallout. The dome was built two decades after the blast in the Pacific ocean region.
The US military filled the bomb crater on Runit island with radioactive waste, capped it with concrete, and told displaced residents of the Pacific’s remote Enewetak atoll they could safely return home. So the islanders returned to their lands, only in 1980, and now there are about 800 people living 20 kilometres from Runit island.
But Runit’ s 45-centimetre (18-inch) thick concrete dome has now developed cracks. And because the 115-metre wide crater was never lined, there are fears radioactive contaminants are leaking through the island’s porous coral rock into the ocean. The concerns have intensified amid climate change. Rising seas, encroaching on the low-lying nation, are threatening to undermine the dome’s structural integrity.
Jack Ading, who represents the area in the Marshalls’ parliament, has recently said: “The dome is stuffed with radioactive contaminants that include plutonium-239, one of the most toxic substances known to man and it is leaking its poison into the surrounding environment”.
For decades the problem has been ignored, but the dome has now developed cracks, and the government of the Marshall Islands has launched appeals to the international community, also calling the attention of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who has defined the dome as “a kind of coffin”.
During a meeting with Marshall Islands president, Hilda Heine, Mr. Guterres also said that the Pacific has been ‘victimized’ in the past by nuclear tests carried out by the US and France in the area and observed: “The consequences of these tests have been quite dramatic, in relation to health and in relation to the poisoning of waters in some areas”.
After the US military withdrew, the Marshall Islands government officially accepted a ‘full and final’ settlement to cover the impact of the nuclear tests.But there have long been complaints that the compensation paid by Washington was inadequate, and the United Nations has described ‘a legacy of distrust’ towards the United States.
Marshalls’ Foreign Minister John Silk said he appreciated Guterres bringing the Runit dome to world attention with his comments.
“We are pleased that the Secretary General made these statements, since so often it seems that these ongoing legacy issues that continue to impact our people are forgotten by the international community”, he said.Even Rhea Moss-Christian, head of the National Nuclear Commission, agrees with these statements and said the country “needs the support of the international community to tackle the staggering challenges to health and the environment in the Pacific”.
A 2013 inspection commissioned by the US government suggested radioactive fallout in the Enewetak lagoon sediment was already so high that a catastrophic failure would not necessarily result in locals receiving increased dosages of radiation.John Silk, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Marshall Islands, noting that the US government had committed to ongoing monitoring of the dome, said an independent assessment of the structure’s status “would be helpful”.Jack Ading, who represents the area in the Marshalls’ parliament, said the situation was “a constant source of anxiety for the people of Enewetak. We pray that the Runit dome does not eventually become our coffin”, he said.(M.C.)