Marshall Islands: Concrete dome holding nuclear waste could leak

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‘We call it the tomb,” says Christina Aningi, the head teacher of Enewetak’s only school.

“The children understand that we have a poison in our island.”

It’s “Manit Day” on Enewetak Atoll, a celebration of Marshall Islands culture when the Pacific nation’s troubled past seems a distant memory.

Schoolchildren sit cross-legged on the coral sands as they sing of the islands and atolls, the sunshine and the breeze; “flowers and moonlight, swaying palm trees”.

They were born decades after the last nuclear explosion ripped through the warm Pacific air with a thunderous roar. But it’s hard to escape the long echo of the bombs.

“Gone are the days when we live in fear, fear of the bombs, guns and nuclear,” they sing.

“This is the time … this is my country, this is my land.”

But those old fears, thought to be long buried, are threatening to reawaken in their island paradise.

In the late 1970s, Runit Island, on the remote Enewetak Atoll, was the scene of the largest nuclear clean-up in United States history.

Highly contaminated debris left over from dozens of atomic weapons tests was dumped into a 100-metre wide bomb crater on the tip of the uninhabited island.

US Army engineers sealed it up with a half-metre thick concrete cap almost the size of an Australian football ground, then left the island.

Now with sea levels rising, water has begun to penetrate the dome.

A report commissioned by the US Department of Energy in 2013 found that radioactive materials were leeching out, threatening the already tenuous existence of Enewetak locals.

“That dome is the connection between the nuclear age and the climate change age,” says Marshall Islands climate change activist Alson Kelen.

The United States detonated 43 atomic bombs around the island chain in the 1940s and 50s.

Four of Enewetak’s 40 islands were completely vaporised by the tests, with one thermonuclear blast leaving a two-kilometre-wide crater where an island had been just moments before.

Enewetak’s population had been re-located to another island in the Marshalls ahead of the tests.

Residents would only be allowed to return home more than three decades later — some on the island today can still recall returning to Enewetak as children.

As part of the clean-up process, Washington set aside funds to build the dome as a temporary storage facility, and initial plans included lining the porous bottom of its crater with concrete.

But in the end, that was deemed too expensive.

“The bottom of the dome is just what was left behind by the nuclear weapons explosion,” says Michael Gerrard, the chair of Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York.

“It’s permeable soil. There was no effort to line it. And therefore, the seawater is inside the dome.”

Locals rarely set foot on Runit Island. They’re fearful of the lingering radiation from the dome and because it’s been ruled off-limits.

To this day, only three islands along Enewetak Atoll’s slender rim are considered safe enough for human habitation.

“[The other islands were] too hot, too radioactive to worry about,” says Giff Johnson, publisher of the Marshall Islands Journal, the country’s only newspaper.

“There was no point [cleaning them up].”

After the fall-out from the atomic testing, life for the people of Enewetak went from a traditional existence of fishing and subsistence living to one where the waters that once supported their livelihoods were now polluted.

On the main island, where most of the atoll’s few hundred people now live, concerns about the radioactive contamination of the food chain has seen a shift away from a traditional diet of fish and coconut.

The US Department of Energy has even banned exports of fish and copra from Enewetak because of the ongoing contamination.

The vast bulk of foodstuffs are now brought into the island by barge, and that means islanders are reliant on imported canned and processed goods like Spam that have triggered health problems such as diabetes.

The shelves of Enewetak’s only store are largely filled with American brand chocolate bars, lollies and potato chips. Go to ABC to read the full story.


SOURCE: ABC NEWS

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