Delayed US Government Study Denies Nuclear Responsibility on Pacific Test Sites

The US Department of Energy has issued a report stating that the US Military Runit Dome in the Enewetak Atoll of the Marshall Islands continues to adequately perform its function of storing nuclear waste. Locals of the Marshall Islands have long awaited a conclusion about the perceived hazardous nature of the dome, and this was not the answer they hoped for.

Contrary to the beliefs of Marshallese Islanders, the US Department of Energy determined the nuclear waste-filled Runit Dome is not hazardous to the local environment and have established that there is no plan for the removal of the nuclear waste underneath the structure. In 2011, Congress tasked the US DOE to investigate the dome’s structure, but the recent findings have done little to ease the Marshallese people’s worries. 

Representatives from the Marshall Islands’ Enewetak Atoll – thousands of miles southwest of the USA – have continuously pushed Congress for radiation monitoring of the encompassing islands. An initial draft of the National Defense Authorization Act required removal of the nuclear waste alongside a local agricultural safety assessment, but, to the dismay of the Marshall Islands National Nuclear Commission, the final bill only demanded the Runit Dome’s environmental risk assessment and mitigation plans, where relevant. The US DOE’s final report to Congress on June 22nd 2020 concluded that the nuclear dome on Runit Island of the Marshall Islands is “not in any immediate danger of collapse or failure”. 

The problem of safety-assurance of the Runit dome is one of many in the nuclear legacy of the Marshall Islands. After taking over Japanese occupation of the islands in 1944, the US saw the remote location as useful as a nuclear testing ground, known as the Pacific Proving Grounds. From 1948-1958, 43 nuclear tests were conducted on the Enewetak atoll.

The Runit Dome was built 1977-1980 by the United States Military. Inside the dome, 95,000 cubic yards of nuclear fission products were stored, including Cesium, Strontium, and, most notably, Plutonium. In addition, the US imported radioactive soils from the mainland to Runit Island. 

Out of the 4000 military servicemen who were assigned to the Runit island clean up, hundreds have suffered severe health problems and died from complications, with cleanup crew not receiving sufficient protective gear and veterans not receiving compensation for medical bills.

The 2020 DOE report admits to environmental contamination from nuclear fission products but has written that these levels are now below international standards. Notwithstanding, the US government still prevents the Marshall Islands from selling local products such as copra and fish.

A reason for the DOE’s inaction is because the island’s radionuclide fallout measurement is below international standards of 100 millirem (mrem) per year. The international standard is much higher than the US’s standard of 15 mrem per year. Representatives of the Republic of Marshall Islands Nuclear Commission comment that they reject the DOE’s lower standard of safety for the Marshall Islands because it is not equal to the US’s safer measurement standard. 

A particularly visual sign of the dome’s degradation can be seen in its large, roving cracks. The DOE’s report says that while they are visually unappealing, they pose no fundamental harm to the structure. Notwithstanding, the DOE will establish a radiochemical analysis program that will measure rainwater infiltration and water levels and quality. Dr. Terry Hamilton of the Marshall Islands Program of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory claims a water-monitoring system is a vital part of the science program for the next two years. The DOE promise was also made in 2013, yet there is no water monitoring system in place. 

Today, Runit is uninhabited out of fear of nuclear contamination. Fishermen and metal salvagers within the Enewetak atoll returned periodically even though all previous inhabitants were allowed to move back in 1980.

Although the report doesn’t suggest the dome’s radioactive waste content is a threat to the island, Marshallese citizens and officials remain skeptical, especially amidst rising sea levels. Researchers at the Center for Nuclear Studies found that radioactive isotopes in the soil of Runit are dangerous to humans and sea-level rise could leach the pollutants into the nearby lagoon. Many Marshallese citizens have remained on their island of exodus or eventually moved to the United States Mainland in hopes of escaping poverty.

The Nuclear Claims Tribunal, a Marshallese agency tasked with seeking compensation from the US, has been promised 2 billion dollars, but there is no system enforcing the payment. To this day, the Marshallese have received roughly only 4 million dollars. As Runit island falls victim to climate change and politics, the Marshallese continue to fight for their way of life.

For The Yucatan Times Enviroment
Adilia Watson

Adilia Watson has an educational background in environmental studies. She regularly writes on topics including biodiversity, waste management, and animals.