By SUSANNE RUST
Here in the Marshall Islands, Runit Dome holds more than 3.1 million cubic feet — or 35 Olympic-sized swimming pools — of U.S.-produced radioactive soil and debris, including lethal amounts of plutonium. Nowhere else has the United States saddled another country with so much of its nuclear waste, a product of its Cold War atomic testing program.
Between 1946 and 1958, the United States detonated 67 nuclear bombs on, in and above the Marshall Islands — vaporizing whole islands, carving craters into its shallow lagoons and exiling hundreds of people from their homes.
U.S. authorities later cleaned up contaminated soil on Enewetak Atoll, where the United States not only detonated the bulk of its weapons tests but, as The Times has learned, also conducted a dozen biological weapons tests and dumped 130 tons of soil from an irradiated Nevada testing site. It then deposited the atoll’s most lethal debris and soil into the dome.
To many in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Runit Dome is the most visible manifestation of the United States’ nuclear legacy, a symbol of the sacrifices the Marshallese made for U.S. security, and the broken promises they received in return.
They blame the United States and other industrialized countries for global climate change and sea level rise, which threaten to submerge vast swaths of this island nation’s 29 low-lying atolls.
Over the last 15 months, a reporting team from the Los Angeles Times and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism made five trips to the Marshall Islands, where they documented extensive coral bleaching, fish kills and algae blooms — as well as major disease outbreaks, including the nation’s largest recorded epidemic of dengue fever. They interviewed folk singers who lost their voices to thyroid cancers and spent time in Arkansas, Washington and Oregon, where tens of thousands of Marshallese have migrated to escape poverty and an uncertain future.
Marshallese leaders acknowledge that America doesn’t bear full responsibility for their nation’s distress. But they say the United States has failed to take ownership of the environmental catastrophe it left behind, and they claim U.S. authorities have repeatedly deceived them about the magnitude and extent of that devastation.
A Times review of thousands of documents, and interviews with U.S. and Marshallese officials, found that the American government withheld key pieces of information about the dome’s contents and its weapons testing program before the two countries signed a compact in 1986 releasing the U.S. government from further liability. One example: The United States did not tell the Marshallese that in 1958, it shipped 130 tons of soil from its atomic testing grounds in Nevada to the Marshall Islands.
U.S. authorities also didn’t inform people in Enewetak, where the waste site is located, that they’d conducted a dozen biological weapons tests in the atoll, including experiments with an aerosolized bacteria designed to kill enemy troops.
U.S. Department of Energy experts are encouraging the Marshallese to move back to other parts of Enewetak, where 650 now live, after being relocated during the U.S. nuclear tests during the Cold War. But many Marshallese leaders no longer trust U.S. assurances of safety.
Adding to the alarm is a study published this year by a team of Columbia University scientists showing levels of radiation in some spots in Enewetak and other parts of the Marshall Islands that rival those found near Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Such discoveries could give Marshallese leaders fresh ammunition to challenge the 1986 compact, which is up for renegotiation in 2023, and also to press the United States to honor property and health claims ordered by an international tribunal.
In September, the Marshallese parliament, the Nitijela, approved a national nuclear strategy, which calls for a risk analysis and environmental survey of Runit Dome, an assessment of legal options for its cleanup and a new attempt to secure the $2.3 billion ordered by the tribunal.
“The Marshall Islands were selected as ground zero for nuclear testing precisely because colonial narratives portrayed the islands as small, remote and unimportant,” said Autumn Bordner, a former researcher at Columbia University’s K=1 Project, which has focused on the legacy of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, and now a research fellow in ocean law and policy at UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment.
According to Joseph and government documents, U.S. authorities came to evacuate the Rongelapese two days later. By that time, some islanders were beginning to suffer from acute radiation poisoning — their hair fell out in clumps, their skin was burned, and they were vomiting.
Between 1948 and 1958, the U.S. military detonated 43 atomic bombs here. After agreeing to a 1958 temporary moratorium on nuclear testing with the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, the U.S. began using the atoll as a conventional and bioweapons testing ground. For the next 18 years, the U.S. shot ballistic missiles at it from California, tested virulent forms of bacteria on its islands and detonated a series of other large, conventional bombs in the lagoon.
In 1972, after the U.S had nearly exhausted its military interest in the region, it invited the leaders of Enewetak back to see the atoll for the first time since 1946.
The United States had detonated 35 bombs in the Marshall Islands in 112 days in 1958. Nine of these were on Enewetak’s Runit Island. With names such as Butternut, Holly and Magnolia, the bombs were detonated in the sky, underwater and on top of islands.
Soldiers swarmed in with bulldozers and earthmoving equipment, pushing the radioactive soil into big debris piles that they shoved into the lagoon, the ocean or possibly left alone; government reports differ on these details.
What is clear, and which has never been reported before, is that 130 tons of soiltransported 5,300 miles from an atomic test site in Nevada was dumped into a 30-foot-wide, 8-foot-deep “conical plug” where the next bomb, Fig, was detonated.
Archived documents suggest the soil was used as part of an experiment, to help scientists understand how soil types contribute to different blast impacts and crater sizes.
The bacteria were sprayed over much of the atoll — with ground zero at Lojwa Island, where U.S. troops were stationed 10 years later for the cleanup of the atoll.
According to military documents, the weapons testers concluded a single weapon could cover 926.5 square miles — roughly twice the size of modern-day Los Angeles — and produce a 30% casualty rate.
Read more at How the U.S. betrayed the Marshall Islands, kindling the next nuclear disaster
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