Environmentalists are raising the alarm of an imminent nuclear disaster in the Pacific Ocean: a dome designed to store radioactive waste from American nuclear weapons testing in the 1940s and 1950s is failing. The fear is that radioactive material will enter the Pacific Ocean without any restriction, contaminating the largest ocean on the planet in the process. Most Americans aren’t aware of its existence or its impending failure. Nor are Americans aware of the thousands of men that risked their lives to build it in the first place.
The Runit Dome is a man-made structure located on Runit Island within Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific Ocean. In addition to being home for a large population of diverse marine life, Enewetak is home to a dirty past: the waste from the United States nuclear testing program of the 1940s and 1950s is encapsulated here. While some be shocked by how little disregard was made for the men that built it, more will be shocked by the crisis that’s unfolding: the dome is failing and is about to litter the environment with tons of radioactive waste.
From 1946 to 1958, the United States created a significant amount of radioactive waste during an active nuclear weapon testing program in the Pacific. Specifically, Enewetak Atoll was the home for several nuclear blasts that left the area pocked with craters. During the test of a bomb with the code name “Cactus”, a large crater was blasted open on May 6, 1958. The purpose of the Cactus test was to determine the impacts of a nuclear blast on and above the ground, analyze structures impacted in the blast area, and measure radioactivity throughout the area at different altitudes. While a lot of data was captured, the site remained a nuclear wasteland for decades.
From 1977 to 1980, four thousand U.S. servicemen were deployed to the area to clean-up the site with a $100 million budget. While the area is contaminated primarily by plutonium, the servicemen were provided with no special uniforms, no breathing apparatus, and no training to deal with the contaminated environment they were working in. The idea of these men being brought into deal with the nuclear disaster is reminiscent of the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl”, which showcased the work of the Soviet “liquidators” who dealt with radioactive fall-out from the nuclear power plant disaster there.
During this American clean-up endeavor, 85,000 cubic meters of radioactive topsoil and other debris from the area was mixed with concrete and buried in Cactus Crater. Unlike typical landfills, there is no liner for this waste site; it is exposed to the porous ground and water table beneath it. Once the Cactus Crater was filled with radioactive debris, including the tools they were using to construct it, it was capped with large panels of concrete roughly 18” thick. After the clean-up effort, many of the servicemen involved in the “Enewetak Atoll Radiological Support Project” succumbed to radiation-related illnesses and death; there are only a few hundred known survivors from the 1980 clean-up .
Unfortunately, the clean-up was not successful. Worse, a bigger disaster could be looming. According to a study developed for the Department of Energy in 2013, the Runit Dome only captured 0.8% of the radioactive contaminated materials of the area. Even worse, the same study also shows that the Runit Dome structure is failing, with erosion and frequent storms contributing to its demise. The analysis provided by that study discussed possible outcomes: the groundwater could be contaminated and bring radioactive matter to nearby lagoons and ocean currents harming fish and plants in the area; the concrete could further degrade, exposing plutonium to the open air to blow/drift around; and/or the area will become an uninhabitable radioactive wasteland for thousands of years to come.
The radioactive material at and around the Runit Dome is harmful because it releases energy as it decays. As unstable radioactive isotopes decay into slightly more stable versions, they release energy that can either directly kill a cell or damage a cell’s DNA. Such damage to a cell’s DNA could trigger mutations that could develop into a cancer like that found in the initial clean-up crews. The plutonium found at the Runit Dome has a half-life of 24,000 years; this means it’ll take that long for half of the material to decay into more stable substances. Because of such a half-life, it will linger in the environment for an extraordinarily long time, presenting problems for anyone that interacts with it. A 2011 study showed that plutonium can create a slew of health problems: adrenal glands transport plutonium into the cells; plutonium enters cells by taking the natural place of iron receptors. The study also discovered that plutonium can linger in the liver and blood cells, leaching alpha radiation as it does so. When inhaled, the plutonium remains in the lungs where it can create lung cancer.
Despite the problems plutonium poses to humans and the environment at large, and despite the 2013 Department of Energy report that showed widespread contamination on the atoll in addition to the failing containment vessel, nothing is being done today.
Just this spring, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said that the president of the Marshall Islands “is very worried because there is a risk of leaking of radioactive materials that are contained in a kind of coffin in the area.” At the completion of the initial clean-up, the governments of the Marshall Islands and the United States agreed that the U.S. is not responsible for any problems that might arise from past nuclear experiments. However, the Marshall Islands are too small and too poor to deal with the situation there.
Not only has the U.S. signed away its responsibility there, but it has also stepped away from being responsible to handle the care for the surviving members of the initial clean-up crew. As of 2017, the U.S. was declining medical expenses for radiation poisoning and cancers that have developed in the remaining survivors, leaving many with tens of thousands of dollars in medical debt. While scientists and doctors disagree, the government says that links can’t be established with the health problems and early deaths and the exposure at the atoll.
Without any attention or interest on this radioactive site, it is not yet known how it’ll be resolved. Or how it will harm humanity.