The Runit Dome in the Marshall Islands, which is threatening to leak radioactive material into the Pacific Ocean, has the potential to cause economic devastation to fishing industries.
– Systems for containing nuclear waste in Pacific atolls produced by French and American nuclear testing in the mid-20th century have been compromised
– Nuclear waste is already leaking into the Pacific Ocean, with clean-up efforts failing to make a significant difference in radiation levels
– There is no clear solution on how to prevent further contamination, despite the economic risk to Pacific island nations
Pacific island nations have a long history with nuclear radiation. Atolls in the Marshall Islands, Johnston Islands, French Polynesia and Christmas Island were sites of French and American nuclear tests throughout the Cold War. These atolls were the target of over 300 nuclear tests, including Operation Castle, a series of thermonuclear tests. This included the Bravo Shot, a nuclear explosion conducted by the US with a destructive capability 1,000 times greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Inhabited islands neighbouring the nuclear test sites have been significantly affected by the fallout and they have had limited support because the extent of the testing was covered up. Due to the lack of awareness about radiation sickness and even of the nuclear tests themselves, locals played with and ate the fallout, thinking it was ‘snow’, leading to detrimental health effects. However, the French government has denied that nuclear testing in French Polynesia resulted in any significant human or environmental damage. Similarly, the US has failed to acknowledge the extent of damage its tests caused to the Marshall Islands.
Responsibility for the subsequent nuclear waste is in the hands of Pacific Island nations. The 1983 agreement between the Marshall Islands government and the US that grants freedom of governance offloads responsibility of nuclear waste from Washington to the Marshallese. Currently, the Marshall Islands lacks the finances to secure the nuclear waste and has voiced its concerns to the UN. Secretary-General Antonío Guterres addressed the security of the dome in a meeting in Fiji in May 2019, bringing it to international attention. Yet no clear solution has been proffered.
A NUCLEAR COFFIN
It is estimated that 85,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste has been buried on Runit Island in the crater made by Castle Bravo. This waste is composed mainly of Plutonium-289, which remains extremely radioactive and has a half-life of 24,000 years. However, the crater containment solution was originally intended to be temporary; the bottom was not securely lined and only the top of the crater was reinforced. The dome, or ‘coffin’, was the 1970s solution for the US-led effort to clean the atoll of nuclear waste as part of the Enewetak Radiological Support Project. The US Army also disposed of a large amount of nuclear waste in a nearby lagoon, against the advice of its Environmental Protection Agency. Due to weathering and the decaying nuclear waste, cracks have appeared in the concrete dome’s surface. If the Runit Dome fails, then the nuclear waste housed inside will be exposed to the elements.
The failure of the US to dispose of this nuclear waste has left the neighbouring Enewetak people at risk of radiation poisoning. The indigenous Enewetak were displaced during the nuclear testing and were unable to return until after the clean-up efforts, which concluded in 1980. However, the land was still largely unhabitable and locals were unable to grow crops or to fish, leaving the islanders relying heavily on food aid and supplies. The environmental degradation has been attributed to Enewetak Radiological Support Project only removing a small amount of the total nuclear waste on the atoll.
In 2013, a US Department of Energy (DoE) report found that the soil outside of the dome has a higher level of radioactive contamination than inside the dome. The report also indicated that radioactive levels in the area were so high that if the dome completely failed, the level of radiation would remain stagnant. The lack of containment lining may have allowed nuclear waste to contaminate the groundwater. There have been recent findings of radioactive shellfish near the dome but it is unclear whether this has resulted from remaining radioactive residue on the atoll or from leakage from the dome. Regardless, the DoE has denied that the radioactivity is due to the decaying dome, a statement strongly contested by the Marshallese.
FUTURE FOR RADIATION IN THE PACIFIC
A direct threat to the integrity of the Runit Dome and sites like it is climate change. The Marshall Islands is already facing the consequences of climate change. Rising sea levels threaten the habitable regions of islands and will eventually cause mass displacement across the region. Rising sea levels also threaten to completely cover the Runit Dome, which could lead to nuclear waste directly entering the Pacific Ocean. Heavy tropical storms in the area have contributed to the corrosion of the dome’s lid and rainfall continues to wash radioactive material into the ocean. The Marshallese government has acknowledged that a major typhoon could completely break apart the dome. This growing threat prompted the government to bring the issue to the UN Summit in Fiji.
The worrying levels of radiation that are already present in local shellfish have only cemented concerns about food chain contamination and the health of fisheries, one of the Pacific’s primary industries. Increased levels of radiation could lead to the bioaccumulation of nuclear waste and the destruction of the Marshall Islands’ fishing industry, which is essential to the economy and to the economies of neighbouring Pacific nations like Kiribati, Palau, Micronesia and even the US state of Hawai’i.
Radioactive waste has the potential to affect the broader Asia-Pacific region. Traces of plutonium, isotopically traced back to the Marshall Islands site, have already been found in the South China Sea. The DoE has banned exports of fish and copra from the Marshall Islands due to nuclear contamination and it is likely that other global sources of fish and marine resources in the Asia-Pacific will be affected through the bioaccumulation of radioactive substances.
The Marshall Islands has stated that it is struggling to acquire the relevant expertise and funding to decontaminate the area, given its small economy and population. The Enewetak people, displaced from the Castle Bravo tests, barely eke out a living on the atolls and rely on US aid, including compensation for the health effects from nuclear testing. If the dome breaks, it is likely that the Enewetak people will have to be relocated again. The US argues that it has honoured its commitments in regards to cleaning the waste and responsibility now falls on the Marshallese government. The DoE has said that they will conduct cosmetic repairs on the dome. However, this may just be another temporary fix and will likely not be enough to prevent further corrosion from rising sea levels or remove the seawater already in the bottom of the dome.
Isabel is a risk analyst in the Asia-Pacific team. She covers health and environmental security issues in the Indo-Pacific region.