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The U.S. Must Take Responsibility for Nuclear Fallout in the Marshall Islands via Scientific American

By Hart RapaportIvana Nikolić Hughes on April 4, 2022

In many ways, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has resurfaced our global nuclear history. […]

As governments across the world consider their own roles in lessening the risk of nuclear war, the United States cannot excuse itself. We can (and should) talk about stemming a future nuclear impact, but equally important is reckoning with our past. Not only is this reckoning a stark reminder of the dangers of nuclear weapons, but it is also a matter of justice.

Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. nuclear testing program drenched the Marshall Islands with enough nuclear firepower to equal the energy yield of 7,000 Hiroshima bombs. Cancer rates have doubled in some places, displaced people have waited decades to return to their homes, and radiation still plagues the land and waters of this Pacific-island nation.


But the nuclear story of the Marshall Islands is not just one of bygone actions. If the U.S. doesn’t better manage this situation, we could have another radioactive incident on our hands. The structural integrity of the Runit Dome, a concrete shell covering over 100,000 cubic yards of nuclear waste on an island of Enewetak Atoll, is at risk because of rising sea levels. Leakage from the dome—already occurring—is likely to increase and higher tides threaten to break the structure open in the coming decades.

To better understand the effect of nuclear testing on the islands, scientists from the Department of Energy have conducted a wide range of studies, most often on environmental contamination. Members of the military have taken action based on these findings, most notably cleaning up parts of Enewetak Atoll. However, we believe that the DOE’s work has missed critical pieces of the puzzle. For example, its scientists have consistently relied upon simulations rather than direct values of background gamma radiation, the simplest of the measurements one can make. Such a failure has contributed to the mistrust by the Marshallese towards the DOE and its findings, which was borne out of the fact that it was the department’s predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, that harmed them in the first place.


Considerable contamination remains. On islands such as Bikini, the average background gamma radiation is double the maximum value stipulated by an agreement between the governments of the Marshall Islands and United States. This is even without taking into account other pathways that could lead to radiation exposure for the Marshallese. Moreover, our findings, based on gathered data, run contrary to the DOE’s, which rely on simulations that predict far lower radiation levels.


But, beyond plutonium and uranium, what other radioisotopes are at play here? One is strontium-90, which can cause cancer in bones and bone marrow, as well as leukemia. It has long been a source of health concerns at other sites of nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima. Despite international research interest, U.S. government scientists have largely ignored the effects of strontium-90 in the Marshall Islands. The DOE’s recent report to Congress, for example, mentioned strontium-90 only once. Their recently published data are similarly lacking in an examination of this dangerous nuclear isotope.


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