For 12 years during the Cold War, the United States ― locked in a fierce nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union ― laid waste to parts of the Marshall Islands with a series of devastating atomic bomb tests.
The U.S. detonated a total of 67 nuclear and atmospheric bombs on the Marshallese atolls of Enewetak and Bikini between 1946 and 1958 ― forcing many islanders to abandon their ancestral homes and leaving behind a staggering amount of radioactive soil and ash that continues to threaten the region and its people today.
U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned last week that a concrete “coffin” built decades ago on an Enewetak island to contain U.S. nuclear waste is at serious risk of cracking open and spilling its toxic contents into the Pacific Ocean.
Guterres, traveling in the South Pacific to discuss the dangers of climate change, said in Fiji on Thursday that Marshallese President Hilda Heine had expressed deep concerns about the aging vault.
Heine is “very worried because there is a risk of leaking of radioactive materials that are contained in a kind of coffin in the area,” Guterres said, according to AFP.
Scientists and locals have been raising the alarm for years that a big storm or rising sea levels caused by climate change could threaten the structural integrity of the coffin, known officially as the Runit Dome, and cause its collapse.
“Runit Dome represents a tragic confluence of nuclear testing and climate change,” Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told The Guardian in 2015. “It resulted from U.S. nuclear testing and the leaving behind of large quantities of plutonium. Now it has been gradually submerged as result of sea level rise from greenhouse gas emissions by industrial countries led by the United States.”
About 111,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste is buried within the Runit Dome, The Guardian said. The unlined structure was built in the late 1970s as a temporary location for nuclear waste until a more permanent decontamination strategy was established.
Almost 30 years later, however, no long-term plan has been made and the nuclear coffin ― which reportedly has visible cracks on its surface ― is the only thing preventing the slurry of nuclear material within from cascading into the ocean.
A 2013 report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy found that radioactive materials had already started leaching out of the dome. The soil around the structure was found to be more radioactive than the contents within, the report concluded. The report insisted that a “catastrophic failure” of the dome would “not necessarily lead to any significant change in the radiation dose delivered to the local resident population.”
The U.S., which has never formally apologized to the Marshall Islands for the nuclear tests, has long washed its hands of responsibility for the Runit Dome.
In 1983, the Marshall Islands, which had been under U.S. rule since World War II, signed a compact of free association with the United States. The compact granted sovereignty to the island nation and settled “all claims, past, present and future” linked to U.S. nuclear testing.
The Runit Dome and its hazardous contents became the responsibility of the Marshallese government. Marshallese officials, however, have said the island nation does not have the resources needed to solve this problem.
“It’s clear as day that the local government will neither have the expertise or funds to fix the problem if it needs a particular fix,” Riyad Mucadam, a climate adviser to the Marshallese government, told The Guardian in 2015.
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