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Seawater is infiltrating a nuclear waste dump on a remote Pacific atoll via PRI

Seawater is infiltrating the Runit Dome, an atomic bomb-waste repository on a remote Marshall Island atoll in the central Pacific Ocean, posing a potential risk of radiation exposure for the small, local population. 

In the 1940s and ’50s, the remote coral atolls that make up the Marshall Islands were ground zero for US atomic weapons testing. Islanders who were evacuated from Enewetak Atoll were allowed to return in the 1980s, but the encroaching ocean is raising concerns about contamination from nuclear weapons waste. US experts insist its plutonium contamination levels are not dangerous.

The Marshall Islands are a huge expanse of more than 1,000 islands spread over 2,000 square kilometers. Enewetak Atoll is in one of the most remote parts of the Islands, located in the far west of the country.


In 1977, about 4,000 US servicemen were sent in to clean up as many of the islands as they could. Over a three- to four-year period, they put about 85,000 cubic meters of radioactive soil and debris into a small crater (left behind by one of the blasts) and then capped it with a concrete dome about a foot-and-a-half thick.

When the dome was built in the late 1970s, climate change and sea level rise were not a factor, so the site was built right next to the shore on the ocean side of the island. The Marshall Islands, with an average height of six feet above sea level, is one of the most low-lying countries on the planet. In the intervening years, storm surges have driven sea water clean across some of the atolls.

“Now, seawater is penetrating the underside of the dome, because when they threw all this material into the old bomb crater, they didn’t line it with anything,” Willacy says.


Not only that, the United States, in a 2013 government report, warned that the dome could smash apart due to the increased ferocity of typhoons and other big storms. If the dome were to be breached, the government report warned, large quantities of radioactive material would leech out into surrounding waters. At the same time, the government has also said a catastrophic breach of the dome would cause no greater environmental damage to the outside environment than has already been caused by the bomb tests, Willacy adds.


The Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, based in California, has been doing groundwater-monitoring tests at Enewetak and, in recent years, has installed a number of monitoring facilities, but there have been no moves to reinforce the dome, which could potentially cost hundreds of millions of dollars. “For the Marshall Islanders to do it themselves would be impossible,” Willacy says. “This is a small Pacific nation, quite impoverished by Western standards.”

The Marshall Islands government would like to see the United States take responsibility for what it sees as a United States problem, Willacy says. In 1986, however, the US government made a deal with the Marshall Islands, agreeing that the islands would take over running its own affairs.

“It paid the Marshall Islands about $150 million, and said, ‘Right, all deals are done. There’s no more claiming of compensation or anything like that,’” Willacy explains. “So, from the perspective of some in the United States government, there is no obligation to come back and clean up this dome or to fix it up. So, I think we’re at a political stalemate and that’s the problem.”

Editor’s note: Living on Earth contacted the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore Labs, which has assessed the structural soundness of the nuclear dome, along with independent experts. The lab says external cracks don’t affect the solidity of the protective cover, but will be repaired during 2018.

Read more at Seawater is infiltrating a nuclear waste dump on a remote Pacific atoll 

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