Radioactive waste from the Cold War era stored under a concrete dome in the Marshall Islands might be leaking into the Pacific Ocean.
Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette has been instructed to report to Congress within six months on the status of the radioactive debris encapsulated in Runit Island, part of Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
The United States military carried out 67 nuclear weapons detonations in Enewetak Atoll and nearby atolls between 1946 and 1958, including the 1954 “Castle Bravo” hydrogen bomb, which was the most powerful test ever conducted by the United States.
According to Military.com, “On May 6, 1958, the U.S. set off an 18-kiloton device on a platform at the northern tip of Runit Island, creating a 350-foot wide crater as part of the U.S. military’s Operation Hardtack.”
Also in 1958, 130 tons of soil from atomic testing sites in Nevada was shipped to the Marshall Islands, according to the investigative report conducted by the Los Angeles Times. In 1968 the U.S. Military conducted biological weapons testing in Enewetak Atoll, according to the same source.
In 1977, the Defense Nuclear Agency began a cleanup of the Enewetak test sites and dumped 111,000 cubic yards of soil polluted by radioactive debris into the crater—which was never lined—and covered it up with an 18-inch thick, 377-feet diameter concrete dome, reported the Los Angeles Times.
In 1977 the predecessor of the Department of Energy established the Marshall Islands Program which included a medical care program to evaluate, monitor, and treat cancer that could result from the exposure to radiation of local inhabitants who had not been relocated before the tests were conducted. The program also comprised environmental monitoring and assessment to assist the Marshallese to make resettlement decisions. Enewetak Atoll is now resettled and about 650 Marshallese live there, reported the Los Angeles Times.
Water and food could be contaminated by leaks of the radioactive waste from the tomb, and locals’ health could be endangered, though experts differ in their assessments of the risks.
In October 2013 Terry Hamilton, a widely respected scientific expert, conducted an evaluation (pdf) of the concrete dome for the Department of Energy and discovered some cracks in the dome’s concrete, recommending it be repaired.
In recent years, however, he stated that the level of radiation in Enewetak and other parts of the Marshall Islands area has already been so high in some spots due to nuclear tests performed there that any additional radiation due to dome failure or washing over the tomb by “storm surge” or “sea level rise” would be insignificant, reported the LA Times.
Another expert, Paul Griego, who worked as a contract radiochemist in Enewetak when the military built the dome in 1978, told the LA Times: “I saw the water rising and falling as we filled that dome. I know that limestone is porous. And I know how sick people got. … That dome is dangerous. And if it fails, it’s a problem.”
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told AFP in May that “the president of the Marshall Islands [Dr. Hilda 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.”
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) directs the Secretary of Energy to devise a plan “to repair the dome to ensure that it does not have any harmful effects to the local population, environment, or wildlife, including the projected costs of implementing such plan.”
The amendment to NDAA that would require the Energy Department to produce a public report on the status of the concrete nuclear waste facility was introduced by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D- Hawaii).
“The Marshallese people are gravely concerned about environmental threats to the integrity of the storage site and the impact on their country,” said Gabbard in a statement. “The U.S. government is responsible for this storage site and must ensure the protection of the people and our environment from the toxic waste stored there.”
Michael Gerrard, a legal scholar at Columbia University told the LA Times that the serious approach taken by the U.S. government to address this environmental issue “is a very welcome development.”
Enewetak Atoll was held by the Japanese from 1914 until the United States captured it in 1944 during World War II.