SOURCE: LA Times
DATE: November 10, 2019
SNIP: 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.
Now the concrete coffin, which locals call “the Tomb,” is at risk of collapsing from rising seas and other effects of climate change. Tides are creeping up its sides, advancing higher every year as distant glaciers melt and ocean waters rise. The so-called Tomb now bobs with the tide, sucking in and flushing out radioactive water into nearby coral reefs, contaminating marine life.
Officials in the Marshall Islands have lobbied the U.S. government for help, but American officials have declined, saying the dome is on Marshallese land and therefore the responsibility of the Marshallese government.
“I’m like, how can it [the dome] be ours?” Hilda Heine, the president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, said in an interview in her presidential office in September. “We don’t want it. We didn’t build it. The garbage inside is not ours. It’s theirs.”
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.
“More than any other place, the Marshall Islands is a victim of the two greatest threats facing humanity — nuclear weapons and climate change,” said Michael Gerrard, a legal scholar at Columbia University’s law school. “The United States is entirely responsible for the nuclear testing there, and its emissions have contributed more to climate change than those from any other country.”
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.
“We didn’t know the Runit Dome waste dump would crack and leak…. We didn’t know about climate change,” said Jack Ading, a Marshallese senator from Enewetak Atoll. “We weren’t nuclear scientists who could independently verify what the U.S. was telling us. We were just island people who desperately wanted to return home.”
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.
The Marshall Islands’ atolls are the remnants of ancient volcanoes that once protruded from these cerulean seas. They were settled 3,000 years ago by the ancestors of present-day Marshallese who crossed the ocean on boats from Asia and Polynesia. For American officials in the mid-1940s, this 750,000-square-mile expanse of ocean, nearly five times larger than the state of California, must have seemed like a near-perfect spot to test their growing atomic arsenal.
“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.
Nerje Joseph, 72, was a witness to the largest thermonuclear bomb tested by the United States: the Castle Bravo detonation. She was 7 years old at the time, living with her family in Rongelap Atoll, 100 miles east of Bikini Atoll — a tropical lagoon commandeered for nuclear testing.
On March 1, 1954, Joseph recalls waking up and seeing two suns rising over Rongelap. First there was the usual sun, topping the horizon in the east and bringing light and warmth to the tropical lagoon near her home. Then there was another sun, rising from the western sky. It lighted up the horizon, shining orange at first, then turning pink, then disappearing as if it had never been there at all.
Joseph and the 63 others on Rongelap had no idea what they had just witnessed. Hours later, the fallout from Castle Bravo rained down like snow on their homes, contaminating their skin, water and food.
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.
The Castle Bravo test and others in the Marshall Islands helped the U.S. establish the credibility of its nuclear arsenal as it raced against its Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, to develop new atomic weapons. But the testing came at a horrible price; Joseph and other Marshallese ended up becoming human guinea pigs for U.S. radiation research.
Three years after Castle Bravo, U.S. authorities encouraged Joseph, her family and her neighbors to return to Rongelap.
U.S. government documents from the time show that officials weighed the potential hazards of radiation exposure against “the current low morale of the natives” and a “risk of an onset of indolence.” Ultimately they decided to go forward with the resettlement so researchers could study the effects of lingering radiation on human beings.
“Data of this type has never been available,” Merrill Eisenbud, a U.S official with the Atomic Energy Commission, said at a January 1956 meeting of the agency’s Biology and Medicine Committee. “While it is true that these people do not live the way that Westerners do, civilized people, it is nonetheless also true that they are more like us than the mice.”
The resettlement proved catastrophic for the people of Rongelap. Cancer cases, miscarriages and deformities multiplied. Ten years later, in 1967, 17 of the 19 children who were younger than 10 and on the island the day Bravo exploded had developed thyroid disorders and growths. One child died of leukemia.
Today, 40 years after it was constructed, the Tomb resembles an aged, neglected and slightly diminutive cousin of the Houston Astrodome.
Spiderweb cracks whipsaw across its cap and chunks of missing concrete pock its facade. Pools of brown, brackish water surround its base, and vines and foliage snake up its sides.
The Tomb, which was built atop an unlined crater created by a U.S. nuclear bomb, was designed to encapsulate the most radioactive and toxic land-based waste of the U.S. testing programs in Enewetak Atoll. This included irradiated military and construction equipment, contaminated soil and plutonium-laced chunks of metal pulverized by the 43 bombs detonated in this 2.26-square-mile lagoon, according to U.S. government documents.
It took 4,000 U.S. servicemen three years to scoop up 33 Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth of irradiated soil and two Olympic swimming pools’ worth of contaminated debris from islands across the atoll and dump it into the crater on Runit Island.
Much of it was mixed in a slurry of concrete and poured into the pit, which was eventually capped with a concrete dome. Six men died during the cleanup; hundreds of others developed radiation-induced cancers and maladies that the U.S. government has refused to acknowledge, according to news reports.
[Note: It is well worth reading the full story at the LA Times]