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High Radiation Levels Found in Giant Clams Near U.S. Nuclear Dump Site on Marshall Islands
New research found high levels of radiation in giant clams near a 42-year old nuclear waste site in the Central Pacific. The findings have scientists concerned that pollution from the site is leaving the enclosed structure and leaking into the ocean and the food chain, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The radioactive clams were found near Runit Dome, which locals call "The Tomb," on the Enewatik Atoll on the Marshall Islands. The clams are a local delicacy and popular in China, which has had a voracious appetite for them in recent years, according to the Los Angeles Times. Yet, the findings suggest that either radiation is oozing out of Runit Dome or the waste from past weapons testing was not adequately cleaned up.
From 1946 to 1958, the U.S. carried out 67 nuclear weapons tests at Bikini and Enewetak atolls, including the 1954 "Bravo" hydrogen bomb, the most powerful detonated by the U.S. It was about 1,000 times bigger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II, according to Aljazeera.
Radioactive ash fell more than 7,000 square miles from the test site and it blanketed the nearby islands. Children played in the white, powdery substance and ate it like it was snow, Marshall Islands health minister would later testify, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.
In 1977, the U.S. tipped soil and ash from the explosions into a crater on Runit Island and topped it with an 18-inch thick concrete dome. However, it was supposed to be a temporary fix and the bottom of the crater was never properly insulated, according to CBS News. After decades of exposure to the elements, cracks in the concrete are evident, raising concerns that a fierce tropical cyclone could breach the structure.
Recently, the UN Secretary General António Guterres addressed concerns over the legacy of nuclear testing. "The consequences of these have been quite dramatic, in relation to health, in relation to the poisoning of waters in some areas," he said in Fiji, CBS News reported. "I've just been with the president of the Marshall Islands (Hilda Heine), who is very worried because there is a risk of leaking of radioactive materials that are contained in a kind of coffin in the area."
According to a 2017 report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the nuclear fallout included plutonium-239, an isotope that is one of the world's most toxic substances, and one with a radioactive half-life of 24,100 years.
"The bottom of the dome is just what was left behind by the nuclear weapons explosion," Michael Gerrard, the chair of Columbia University's Earth Institute, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "It's permeable soil. There was no effort to line it. And therefore, the seawater is inside the dome."
The U.S. Department of Energy scientists say that the shellfish with elevated radiation levels near Runit Dome are safe to eat in small quantities and are contaminated because of the initial nuclear testing, not because of any contamination leaking out of the dome, according to the Los Angeles Times. Yet, the scientists do admit that its groundwater, which leaks into the lagoon and ocean, is severely contaminated.
Yet, some locals who attended the Department of Energy's presentation, cast doubt on the conclusions.
"What they're saying is, here is the dome. And here, in the lagoon area, there is radiation. ... But as far as leaking from the dome, we don't think that's the case?" said James Matayoshi, mayor of Rongelap Atoll, one of the atolls contaminated by fallout from the nuclear testing program, the Los Angeles Times reported. "That doesn't make any sense.
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Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.
The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.
"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.
"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
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