Quantcast

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

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

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.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A new study shows that half of all Arctic warming and corresponding sea-loss during the late 20th century was caused by ozone-depleting substances. Here, icebergs discharged from Greenland's Jakobshavn Glacier. Kevin Krajick / Earth Institute / EurekAlert!

The world awakened to the hole in the ozone layer in 1985, which scientists attributed it to ozone depleting substances. Two years later, in Montreal, the world agreed to ban the halogen compounds causing the massive hole over Antarctica. Research now shows that those chemicals didn't just cut a hole in the ozone layer, they also warmed up the Arctic.

Read More
Diane Wilson holds up a bag full of nurdles she collected from one of Formosa's outfall areas on Jan. 15. Julie Dermansky / DeSmogBlog

By Julie Dermansky

On the afternoon of Jan. 15, activist Diane Wilson kicked off a San Antonio Estuary Waterkeeper meeting on the side of the road across from a Formosa plastics manufacturing plant in Point Comfort, Texas.

After Wilson and the waterkeeper successfully sued Formosa in 2017, the company agreed to no longer release even one of the tiny plastic pellets known as nurdles into the region's waterways. The group of volunteers had assembled that day to check whether the plant was still discharging these raw materials of plastics manufacturing.

Read More
Sponsored

By Simon Coghlan and Kobi Leins

A remarkable combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and biology has produced the world's first "living robots."

Read More
Malaysian Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin (front 2nd L) and officials inspect a container containing plastic waste shipment on Jan. 20, 2020 before sending back to the countries of origin. AFP via Getty Images

The Southeast Asian country Malaysia has sent 150 shipping containers packed with plastic waste back to 13 wealthy countries, putting the world on notice that it will not be the world's garbage dump, as CNN reported. The countries receiving their trash back include the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Canada.

Read More
Trump leaves after delivering a speech at the Congress Centre during the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos on Jan. 21, 2020. JIM WATSON / AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump dismissed the concerns of environmental activists as "pessimism" in a speech to political and business leaders at the start of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos on Tuesday.

Read More