Climate Change Is Threatening To Crack Open A Cold War Nuclear Tomb

Aerial photo of the Runit Dome. US DEFENCE NUCLEAR AGENCY (PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Two of the biggest threats to humanity – climate change and nuclear weapons – are threatening to come to a head in the Marshall Islands. 

When the US was flexing its muscles during the Cold War, the Pentagon dropped 67 nuclear bombs on the atolls of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific OceanTowards the end of the 1970s, the resulting mess of irradiated soil and debris from six different islands (along with tons of contaminated soil from Nevada) was transported to a giant pit on Runit Island, where it was mixed with concrete and entombed in a dome.

For many years, the problem appeared to have been successfully swept under the rug. But now, as The Los Angeles Times reports, the nuclear tomb is threatening to crack open as a result of rising sea levels and other effects of climate change. 

The shallow tomb, called The Runit Dome and locally known as "The Tomb", is a 45-centimeter-thick (17-inch) concrete dome with a 115-meter (377-foot) diameter found on Runit Island in the Enewetak Atoll. Its job was to contain the radioactive material coughed out by the US nuclear tests in “Pacific Proving Grounds,” but there has been persistent fear that it could spring a leak.

Bird's eye view of Runit Island. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY (PUBLIC DOMAIN)

The recent investigation by a team from The Los Angeles Times and Columbia University suggests the dome could be at risk of collapse. In a series of five trips, they documented the dome is covered in cracks that are worsening due to rising temperatures. Rising sea levels are also lapping at the shores of Runit Island, causing it to bleed radioactive material into the surrounding waters. 

In July 2019, a seperate peer-reviewed study found that some regions of the Marshall Islands have levels of radiation that are comparable to those found near Chernobyl and Fukushima.

The problem also has the very real potential to reignite old political grievances. In 1986, the Marshall Islands signed a compact to seal its independence from the US. However, their freedom also meant the US government was no longer explicitly responsible for any future “fallout” from the Cold War nuclear tests. 

Although the US has agreed to pay for resettlement and health care for communities affected by the historic nuclear testing, there is a hesitancy to deal with “The Tomb.” The Marshall Islands have attempted to lobby the US government for help with the problem, but American officials have reportedly declined, arguing the dome is the responsibility of the Marshallese government.

“I’m like, how can [the dome] be ours?” said Hilda Heine, the president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, reports The Los Angeles Times.

“We don’t want it. We didn’t build it. The garbage inside is not ours. It’s theirs.”

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