Quantcast
Climate
The 100-meter wide crater on Runit Island was deemed a good place to dump as much soil contaminated with plutonium as possible. Chunks of unexploded plutonium-239 were also disposed of in the hole. Google Earth

A Tiny Island Used as a Nuclear Dumpsite Is About to Be Submerged by Water

By Joe McCarthy

The Enewetak Atoll is all but invisible on Google Maps. Halfway between Australia and Hawaii, the ribbon of land is home to a small indigenous population that has seen their way of life eroded by decisions far outside of their control.

For more than half a century, the atoll, which is part of the Marshall Islands, has been contaminated by nuclear explosions and waste, according to ABC Australia. The decades ahead could leave it submerged by rising sea levels.


In this way, Enewetak "is at the intersection of two of the biggest problems of the last century and this century, nuclear weapons and sea level rise," Michael Gerrard, the chair of Columbia University's Earth Institute in New York who has studied the atoll, told Global Citizen.

Both of these problems are at risk of converging, ABC Australia reported, because the main holding container for the atoll's nuclear waste is being compromised by rising waters.

The atoll's problems began in the 1940s and 1950s when the U.S. began using it for nuclear bomb tests. The people of Enewetak were evacuated and 67 nuclear bombs were dropped, devastating wildlife, spreading nuclear toxins far and wide, and creating massive craters.

One of those craters was on Runit Island. In the late 1970s, the U.S. began to partially clean the nuclear waste from the island. Some of the radioactive chemicals had relatively short half-lives, Michael Gerrard wrote in an op-ed, and were left to naturally decay despite their risks. Another toxin, plutonium-239, has a half-life of 24,000 years and had to be dealt with.

The 100-meter wide crater on Runit Island was deemed a good place to dump as much soil contaminated with plutonium as possible. Chunks of unexploded plutonium-239 were also disposed of in the hole.

When the cleanup was finished—far below standards that would be deemed sufficient in the U.S., according to Gerrard—a massive concrete shell was built to cover the hole.

No reinforcements were made to the bottom and sides of the hole, meaning the waste directly interacts with the soil and a dumpsite for radioactive waste fails to meet standards for normal trash landfills, Gerrard said.

The displaced people of Enewetak Atoll were finally allowed to return in 1980, despite the widespread contamination of their home. Traditional forms of fishing, farming and gathering had to be abandoned because the wildlife became too contaminated, ABC Australia reported.

And despite the ongoing threat posed by the non-reinforced radioactive dumpsite, no adjustments have been made to it, ABC noted. That's because the radiation outside the dome exceeds the radiation inside of it, according to the U.S. Department of Energy report, so the release of the waste wouldn't make a major environmental difference.

Rising sea levels have compromised the dome in the years since its construction, a problem that has only grown worse in recent years, and a powerful typhoon could destroy it, according to the report.

The Marshall Islands are around six feet above sea level, and large parts of Enewetak are at risk of being submerged in the years ahead. Current flooding rates are already making the islands uninhabitable once again, according to ABC Australia.

"It's important to recognize that the Marshall Islands are doubly screwed," Gerrard said. "They were the site of nuclear explosions by the U.S., and one of the things that they left behind was this nuclear dome and the other thing is the country is going underwater because of greenhouse gas emissions for which the U.S. is major contributor."

Ultimately, the people of Enewetak may once again be uprooted from their native lands, especially if contamination becomes worse, ABC Australia noted.

"That dome is the connection between the nuclear age and the climate change age," Marshall Islands climate change activist Alson Kelen told ABC Australia.

"It'll be a very devastating event if it really leaks," he said. "We're not just talking the Marshall Islands, we're talking the whole Pacific."

The threat faced by Enewetak reflects a larger nuclear threat around the world, Gerrard said.

Globally, nuclear power facilities are generally built along coastlines, because of how much water they use and to be close to cities and towns.

The destruction of the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan made clear just how precarious this arrangement can be—six years after the disaster, nuclear waste is still pouring out of the facility.

Rising sea levels could put other reactors and dump sites around the world at risk, especially if extreme weather continues to intensify as expected.

The people of Enewetak know all too well what it's like to live in what is essentially a nuclear dumpsite. Keeping the atoll safe by both mitigating climate change and further cleaning its islands could show the rest of the world how to navigate a potentially perilous future.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Global Citizen.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Energy
Pipe being transported to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Photo credit: Mark Levisay / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Atlantic Coast Pipeline Work Restarts as Opponents Decry 'Rushed Decisions'

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ruled Monday that work could resume on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which opponents call "unnecessary and a boondoggle," the Charlotte Business Journal reported.

Work on the controversial pipeline halted last month after a federal appeals court vacated two permits required for the project to complete its 600 mile route from West Virginia, through Virginia, to North Carolina.

Keep reading... Show less
Business
zodebala / iStock

Investigators Find Slave Labor on Starbucks-Certified Brazil Coffee Plantation

By Daniela Penha and Roberto Cataldo, Translator

This story was produced via a co-publishing partnership between Mongabay and Repórter Brasil and can be read in Portuguese here.

At first sight, the Córrego das Almas farm in Piumhi, in rural Minas Gerais state, seems to be a model property. "No slave or forced labor is allowed," reads one of several signs that display international certifications—including one linked to the U.S. based company Starbucks corporation.

Keep reading... Show less
Politics
Oil and gas companies flare natural gas that cannot be processed or sold. Varodrig / Wikimedia Commons

Trump Lets Fracking Companies Release More Climate-Warming Methane

As expected, the U.S. Department of the Interior on Tuesday released a final rule that reverses Obama-era restrictions on methane emissions from oil and gas operations.

President Obama's 2016 methane waste rule, which never went into effect, required fossil fuel companies on tribal and public lands to reduce emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that's about 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. It called on drilling operators to capture leaking and vented methane and to update their leak-detection equipment.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Smoke from the Carr Fire in northern California, July 2018. Eric Coulter, Bureau of Land Management / Public Domain

U.S. Air Pollution Is 'Completely Outrageous'

By Juanita Constible

How do you think the U.S. stacks up against other countries for protecting its citizens from the health threats of air pollution?

That's the question Christiana Figueres, one of the world's leading climate warriors, posed at last week's Global Climate and Health Forum, an official side event of the Global Climate Action Summit. The answer, said Ms. Figueres, is "completely outrageous."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Politics

Top EPA Watchdog Since 2010 Announces Departure

The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) internal watchdog organization announced plans to leave for a job outside the federal government Tuesday, The Associated Press reported.

Arthur A. Elkins Jr., who has held the position of Inspector General since he was appointed by former president Barack Obama in 2010, will spend his last day at the agency Oct. 12, The Hill reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
A man outside his flooded home in Lokoja in the Kogi state of Nigeria following heavy rains there. SODIQ ADELAKUN / AFP / Getty Images

100 Dead in Nigeria Following Severe Flooding

Nigeria declared a national disaster in four states Monday in response to deadly flooding that National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) spokesperson Sani Datti partly attributes to climate change, CNN reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Politics
L: Michael Coghlan / Flickr R: Coloured chest X-ray of a male patient showing evidence of a mesothelioma lung cancer, which is usually associated with exposure to asbestos. Zephyr / Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Report: 140 House Members Vote Against Chemical Safeguards Every Time

The Environmental Working Group Action Fund, the political arm of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), released a first-ever report that scores how each member of the U.S. House of Representatives voted on chemical policy and safety.

The scorecard shows that 140 House members voted against chemical safeguards every time, while 149 members consistently voted for chemical safety protections.

Keep reading... Show less
Food
grobery / CC BY SA 2.0 (Flickr)

What’s for Dinner? A Preview of the People, Process and Politics Updating Federal Dietary Guidelines

By Sarah Reinhardt

Months behind schedule, two federal departments have officially kicked off the process for writing the 2020-2025 iteration of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Updated and reissued every five years, these guidelines are the nation's most comprehensive and authoritative set of nutrition recommendations. And although the process is meant to be science-based and support population health—and has historically done so, with some notable exceptions—there are plenty of reasons to believe that the Trump administration is preparing to pitch a few curveballs.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!