20 July 2015

Leaking Nuclear Waste from Cold War threatens health of Micronesia

Deadly dome of Runit Island leaking radioactive waste

A giant, concrete dome filled with radioactive waste looms above Runit Island, and it’s leaking. Locals call it “The Tomb”.

Runit (or Cactus) dome was used for Cold War nuclear testing by the US government for 10 years from 1948. There were 42 tests in total on Enewetak Atoll, including 22 explosions on platforms, barges and underwater in the space of just three months in 1958, just before a moratorium on atomic testing.

In the late 1970s, an estimated 73,000 cubic metres of contaminated topsoil was deposited in the Cactus nuclear test crater beneath the dome, according to a report commissioned by the US government.

It was only supposed to be a temporary measure — but the dome remains.

Scientists now fear that a major storm, typhoon or other natural disaster could damage the 46cm-thick concrete dome, releasing nuclear waste into the sea, The Guardian reports.

The US Department of Energy insists cracks in the dome are merely cosmetic, a result of drying and shrinking of the half-submerged dome, but there are plans for repairs.

The 2013 report states that this is to satisfy local concerns, but adds that rainwater could infiltrate through the cracks, possibly affecting groundwater flow and “radionuclide migration into the marine environment”.

Inhabitants of Runit were resettled on nearby Enewetak Island in 1980. Even in the early days, concerns were raised over human exposure to radiation through locally grown food, with resettlers resorting to cans of spam, Columbia University’s Michael Gerrard wrote last year in The New York Times.

Runit remains uninhabited, home only to abandoned bunkers and cables, but locals still visit to fish and salvage scrap metal. It sounds dangerous, but impoverished Marshall Islanders say they have no choice.

And just because Runit is remote, doesn’t mean other countries are totally immune from its influence. A report published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal last year traced plutonium found in Guangdong province in the South China Sea back to the Marshall Islands.

Professor Alex Sen Gupta, from the University of NSW, told news.com.au that it was likely the radioactive material would be diluted to a very low concentration by the time it reached other countries, but said it would be of serious local concern.

“If radioactive material is leaching over a long period of time, you get bioaccumulation,” he said. “It’s the same as when oysters in a river magnify a situation.

“There’s a reasonable population in that area, and if radioactive waste is hanging around, it could be a problem.”

Runit is not the only Pacific island dealing with a nuclear legacy. “Poor islands have to deal with the mess left by large governments,” Professor Gupta said.

An association of governments in French Polynesia is preparing to ask France for nearly a billion US dollars in compensation for damage caused by nuclear weapons tests around Mururoa Atoll, The Independent reported last year.

Other atolls in the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, have shared this dubious honour. The very first US hydrogen bomb test vaporised the islet of Elugelab in 1952. Then Bikini Atoll became the site of the country’s most powerful hydrogen bomb detonation, codename Bravo, set off on its reef in 1954.

A fireball shot into the air at 480km/h, taking millions of tons of sand, coral and marine life with it. Locals were moved to Kili, a small island with few resources, where they faced starvation. Many returned to Bikini Island, despite the contamination of its water wells, breadfruit and coconut crabs, which were found to be too radioactive for human consumption. Many now rely on US rice and canned goods to survive.

The nuclear crisis continues out in the Pacific. But it’s far enough away for everyone to forget about it.