Enewetak’s climate bomb in paradise
Marshall Islands history and culture[edit | edit source]
The Republic of Marshall Islands includes hundreds of small islands perched precariously across 34 low-lying coral atolls that rise, on average, just two meters above sea level in the Southern Pacific Ocean. The largest island is primarily English-speaking Kwajalein Atoll, home to a United States Army garrison and a ballistic missile defense site, a reminder that the U.S. presence on the islands dates back decades to World War II. The islands were initially discovered by Spain in the 16th century, sold to the Germans during the Spanish-American war, and captured by Japan during World War I before retaken by the U.S.
Through it all, the indigenous Pacific Islanders continued a way of life that is bound to and dependent on the sea. The islands negotiated independence beginning with a 1978 referendum, in which its people broke away from the wider Micronesian island territories, and signed its free compact with the U.S. in 1986. The U.S. retains rights to Marshall Islands missile test sites through at least 2066, despite the long history of legal claims arising from 67 separate U.S. nuclear weapons tests occurring from 1946 to 1958.
Today, attention to the Marshall Islands residents who moved back after testing and a lengthy toxic cleanup is focused on the existential threat of climate change and rising sea levels. On many of the volcanic atolls, a person can stand in the lagoon on one side and sea the waves crashing on the ocean side of the narrow threads of land, according to a National Climate Change Policy Framework document filed with the United Nations. Marshall Islanders are among the first of the world’s populations to plan for climate migration, with about 20 percent of those leaving so far living in the U.S. state of Arkansas.
Some hope to return one day, but they’re not optimistic the land will be there and a new challenge has emerged: Rising seas are causing a capped nuclear waste to leach toxic material from beneath its dome.
Enewetak Atoll and U.S. nuclear weapons testing[edit | edit source]
The years of U.S. nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands left a legacy of displacement from sites such as the uninhabited Bikini Atoll, where the largest U.S. weapon ever detonated – at 1,000 times the impact of the Hiroshima bomb – was tested. A 2016 study found the island is still too radioactive for its inhabitants to return, something they tried decades ago to do after being told incorrectly that it was safe on the basis of soil chemistry science that was wrong for the coral-based lands of the island chain. Resident health was compromised by Cesium 137 exposures through coconut milk, crabs, fruits and soil.
Levels now are safer for neighboring Enewetak and Rongelap atolls, the study found, but it was a hard-won victory. “Most nuclear tests conducted on Enewetak Atoll were detonated in the northern reaches of the atoll and produced highly localized fallout contamination of neighboring islands and the atoll lagoon,” the Marshall Islands government says. “By the time the test moratorium came into effect on 31 October of 1958, the United States had conducted a total of 42 nuclear tests on Enewetak Atoll.” An estimated 25,000 people were affected in the islands overall, with some radiation half-lives exceeding 20,000 years on Enewetak, a small ring of islands circling a lagoon about 80 kilometers in circumference.
Toxic cleanup and residents’ return[edit | edit source]
In 1977, the U.S. began the remediation and cleanup at Enewetak. Some 73,000 cubic meters of soil contaminated by radiation was moved, with 4,000 U.S. military personnel assigned to the task – some of whom have health consequences of their own and say they did not have proper training and protective equipment. A January 2017 report found many have died, while the living are diagnosed with cancer, defects in their children and other complications not uncommon among Marshall Islanders themselves.
People on the partly resettled Enewetak now have an average of 7.6 millirems in radiation exposure each year, rising to 19.8 on Rongelap, both well below the 100 millirem threshold established by the U.S. and the Marshall Islands government. On Bikini, average readings are 184 with a high of 640 millirems.
Much of the toxic soils, debris and other waste were dumped into Cactus Crater on Runit Island in the Enewetak chain. Once the U.S. cleanup was deemed complete, the crater was capped with a low-profile concrete dome. It remains there today, visible from the air as an alien-like disc nestled at the edge of the ocean. Buried there are 111,000 cubic yards of radioactive material beneath the 358 concrete panels that make up a half-meter protective layer of concrete. But the dome is showing cracks – the World Health Organization says it was never meant as a permanent solution – and worse, there is no liner.
The radioactive waste, including Plutonium 239 is in direct contact with the soil and sand beneath it, and is known to be leaching. Worse still, is that the construction may be compromised by climate-enhanced future storms, traces of test plutonium already have been noted in China, and the seas are rising fast.
Rising seas release toxic waste[edit | edit source]
The U.S. passed legislation in 2012 to require groundwater monitoring at the Runit Island crater, but that’s small consolation to Marshall Islanders who say they have never been properly compensated, never heard an apology and don’t trust the U.S. to be truthful or honor its environmental commitments.
Now, as they contend with climate threats that have the potential to erase their homes, they must also fear the leakage of nuclear waste that threatens not just the Enewetak but the entire planet. “To me, it’s like this big monument to America’s giant f--k up,” said Jack Niedenthal, an activist working on behalf of the Enewetak people, in a November 2017 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Michael Gerrard, chair of Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York, warns of dire consequences because the bottom of the crater is just what was left after the bomb tests – and the Cactus Crater site itself was chosen because it was too radioactive to be easily remediated. “It’s permeable soil,” he said. “There was no effort to line it. And therefore, the seawater is inside the dome.” As everyone on the atoll already knows, that sea level is rising – and it’s already reaching the Runit Island radioactive waste site.