Never heard of the Runit dome? Can’t blame you. Anyway, a gigantic, old, and worn concrete dome bobs up and down with the tide on a remote spit of white coral sand in the central Pacific, 5,000 miles west of Los Angeles and 500 miles north of the equator.
More than 3.1 million cubic feet, or 35 Olympic-sized swimming pools, of radioactive soil and debris produced by the United States, including fatal levels of plutonium, are stored under Runit Dome here in the Marshall Islands.
The amount of radioactive waste the US has given to another nation due to its Cold War atomic testing program is unprecedented.
Between 1946 and 1958, the United States dropped 67 nuclear bombs inside and above the Marshall Islands, vaporizing entire islands, creating holes in their shallow lagoons, and displacing hundreds of residents.
After conducting a dozen biological weapons experiments and dumping 130 tons of soil from an irradiated Nevada testing site on Enewetak Atoll, where the United States also exploded most of its weapons tests, U.S. authorities later cleaned up contaminated soil. The atoll’s most dangerous debris and soil were added to the dome.
The concrete coffin, known as “the Tomb” by the villagers, is now in danger of collapse due to increasing sea levels and other effects of climate change. Every year, as distant glaciers melt and ocean levels rise, tides are creeping up its sides.
The U.S. government has rejected requests for assistance from Marshall Islands officials because they claim the dome is on Marshallese territory and is their responsibility.
In a September interview at her office, the president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Hilda Heine, stated. “How can it [the dome] be ours? We are against it. We didn’t make that. It’s not our junk that’s inside. They own it.”
What is the Runit Dome, and Why Is It Scary?
Runit Dome is widely regarded as the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ most obvious example of the nuclear legacy left by the United States. It serves as a reminder of the sacrifices the Marshallese made for American security and the broken promises they were promised in exchange.
They attribute the global climate change and sea level rise, which threaten to submerge large portions of this island nation’s 29 low-lying atolls on the United States and other developed nations.
According to Michael Gerrard, a legal expert at Columbia University’s law school, nuclear weapons and climate change are the two most significant threats to civilization. “More than any other area, the Marshall Islands is a victim of these two threats,” he said.
The nuclear tests there was solely the fault of the United States, whose emissions have had the most significant impact on climate change of any nation.
During five trips to the Marshall Islands over the past 15 months, a reporting team from the Los Angeles Times and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism documented extensive coral bleaching, fish kills, and algae blooms in addition to significant disease outbreaks, including the country’s largest recorded dengue fever epidemic.
They visited Arkansas, Washington, and Oregon, where tens of thousands of Marshallese have relocated to escape poverty and an uncertain future. They spoke with folk singers who lost their voices to thyroid tumors.
Leaders in the Marshall Islands agree that America is not the only entity to blame for their country’s problems. Yet, they assert that the US has not accepted responsibility for the environmental catastrophe it has caused and that US authorities have continually misled them about the scope and breadth of the destruction.
Before the two countries signed an agreement in 1986 that released the U.S. government from further liability, the American government withheld crucial details about the contents of the dome and its weapons testing program, according to a Times review of tens of thousands of documents and interviews with U.S. and Marshallese officials.
To illustrate this, the United States concealed from the Marshallese that it transported 130 tons of dirt from its nuclear testing facilities in Nevada to the Marshall Islands in 1958.
Also, U.S. authorities withheld that they had carried out a dozen biological weapons tests in the atoll, including tests using an aerosolized bacteria intended to kill enemy soldiers, from the residents of Enewetak, where the waste site is located.
The Marshallese were displaced during the U.S. nuclear experiments during the Cold War and are now being encouraged by U.S. Department of Energy experts to return to other areas of Enewetak, where 650 of them currently reside.
But, many Marshallese authorities no longer believe the United States safety claims.
“We were unaware that the Runit Dome landfill would fracture and leak.” Jack Ading, a senator from the Marshallese Enewetak Atoll, claimed. “We weren’t aware of climate change. We needed more nuclear expertise to confirm what the United States told us independently. We were merely islanders who yearned to be back home.”
Recent research by a group of Columbia University experts that discovered radiation levels comparable to those reported close to Chornobyl and Fukushima in some Enewetak and other Marshall Islands areas adds to the alarm.
These revelations might provide Marshallese leaders with new evidence to contest the 1986 agreement, which is up for renegotiation in 2023, and to pressure the US to uphold property and health claims mandated by an international tribunal.
The United States was ordered to pay $2.3 billion in claims by the 1988-established tribunal, but Congress and American courts have refused. According to documents, America only contributed $4 million.
Karen Stewart, the U.S. ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands, stated that the U.S. stance is that it has already paid more than $600 million for the resettling, rehabilitation, and radiation-related healthcare expenditures of populations damaged by nuclear testing.
According to her, inflation has brought the amount closer to $1 billion.
The United States “recognizes the repercussions of its testing and has recognized and acted on its obligation to the people of the Republic of the Marshall Islands,” Stewart said in a statement.
In September, the Marshallese parliament, the Nitijela, authorized a national nuclear strategy. It calls for a risk analysis and environmental survey of Runit Dome, an evaluation of the legal possibilities for its cleanup, and a new attempt to obtain the $2.3 billion that the tribunal had ordered.
In October 2019, Marshall Islands politicians urged the world community to curb greenhouse gases that they claimed were producing a “national climate disaster.”
Because of their strategic location and Beijing’s desire to lessen American influence in the area, China is becoming more interested in the Marshall Islands and other Pacific Island nations.
The U.S. government has been worried by China’s intrusions, which has compelled them to focus more on the complaints of Marshallese officials like Heine.
This increased interest “should bode well for us,” Heine added.
Only one commercial airline operates flights to the Marshall Islands from the U.S. mainland, and the flight takes more than a day.
United Airlines Flight 154, known as the “Island Hopper,” departs from Honolulu, stops in the Marshall Islands at Majuro and Kwajalein, then makes its way west into the Micronesian islands Kosrae, Pohnpei and Chuuk before landing in Guam.
It goes back the next day.
When the ship approaches Majuro, an oblong string of islands with white-coral beaches and scattered coconut, pandanus, and breadfruit trees breaks up the blue ocean’s surface.
What Did the US Do To the People of the Marshall Islands?
The atolls of the Marshall Islands are the remains of ancient volcanoes that formerly jutted out into these azure waters. They were inhabited by the forerunners of the modern Marshallese 3,000 years ago when they sailed over the seas from Asia and Polynesia.
This 750,000-square-mile ocean area, which is roughly five times the size of the state of California, must have seemed like the ideal place for American policymakers in the middle of the 1940s to test their expanding atomic weapons.
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 currently a research fellow in ocean law and policy at UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment, explained that the Marshall Islands were chosen as the site of nuclear testing precisely because colonial narratives portrayed the islands as small, remote, and unimportant.
The Castle Bravo detonation, the most significant thermonuclear weapon the United States has ever detonated, was witnessed by Nerje Joseph, 72. She was seven years old and was residing with her family on Rongelap Atoll, a tropical lagoon used for nuclear testing, 100 miles east of Bikini Atoll.
Joseph remembers waking up on March 1st, 1954, and seeing two suns above Rongelap. The sun rose over the horizon in the east as usual, illuminating and warming the tropical lagoon close to her house. Suddenly another sun appeared, rising in the west.
It illuminated the horizon, beginning as an orange light that changed to pink before dissipating completely.
Joseph and the other 63 people aboard Rongelap were utterly unaware of what had happened. Their skin, water, and food became contaminated hours later when the aftermath of Castle Bravo fell like snow on their dwellings.
According to Joseph and official records, American authorities arrived two days later to evacuate the Rongelapese. By that point, some islanders showed signs of acute radiation poisoning, including clumps of hair, scorched skin, and vomiting.
As the United States raced against its Cold War rival, the Soviet Union, to build new atomic weapons, tests like Castle Bravo and those conducted in the Marshall Islands helped the country prove the legitimacy of its nuclear arsenal. But, the testing came at a terrible cost; Joseph and other Marshallese served as radiation test subjects for American scientists.
An Evil, Planned Operation
U.S. authorities invited Joseph, her family, and her neighbors to return to Rongelap three years after Castle Bravo.
Government authorities at the time balanced the risks of radiation exposure against “the current low morale of the indigenous” and a “risk of an emergence of indolence,” according to papers from the U.S. government. Ultimately, they moved forward with the resettlement so scientists could examine lingering radioactivity’s effects on people.
Merrill Eisenbud, a US official with the Atomic Energy Commission, stated, “Data of this type have never been accessible” at a January 1956 meeting of the committee’s Biology and Medicine subcommittee. “Although these people don’t live in the same manner as Westerners or other civilized people, it’s also true that they resemble us more than mice.”
The relocation ended up being disastrous for the residents of Rongelap. Miscarriages, malformations, and cancer cases increased. 17 of the 19 children younger than ten on the island the day Bravo erupted had thyroid conditions and growths by 1967. Leukemia claimed one little life.
According to historical government documents and news sources, the villagers of Rongelap requested Greenpeace’s evacuation once more in 1985 after the US failed to transfer them or acknowledge their exposure.
Joseph, who had her thyroid removed due to radiation exposure, has been taking thyroid medication every day for almost seven decades, allowing her body to create hormones that it otherwise would not be able to.
Joseph is a peaceful, dignified woman with thick, wavy grey hair who lives in a cinder-block house in Majuro, the nation’s capital, a location far different from the idyllic atoll where she was raised.
Majuro, a long, thin island of three low-lying islands connected by one flood-prone road, is home to over 28,000 people, almost half the Marshall Islands’ population. Taxis squeeze as many passengers into their vehicles as they can as they crawl the length of this lonely route.
Visitors who travel by foot are advised to bring long sticks to fend off roving gangs of feral dogs.
Although knowing she might never return, Joseph claims she misses her home.
She recalled her early years by saying, “When we lived on Rongelap, we had a oneness. We shared activities such as work and pleasure as well as meals. It is no longer there.”
Atoll Enewetak, which suffered the brunt of the United States late-stage nuclear detonations before an international ban on atmospheric testing in 1963, is where the impact of the testing program is most conspicuously visible.
Enewetak, a group of 40 islands to the west of Bikini, was once a picture-perfect ring of coral reefs, white sand beaches, and coconut trees where about 450 dri-Enewetak and dri-Enjebi—the two clans that lived in the atoll—harvested fish and clams from the lagoon and gathered breadfruit and pandanus.
The American military dropped 43 atomic bombs here between 1948 and 1958. The U.S. started using the atoll as a site for conventional and bioweapons testing after signing a temporary ban on nuclear testing in 1958 with the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom.
The United States bombarded it with ballistic missiles from California for the following 18 years, conducted bacterial warfare tests on its islands, and dropped numerous other huge conventional bombs into the lagoon.
The chiefs of Enewetak were invited back to the atoll for the first time since 1946 in 1972 after the United States had almost exhausted its military interest in the area.
The Enewetak leaders “were genuinely delighted to be able to see their ancestral country, but they were shocked by what they witnessed,” according to a Department of Energy study on the incident.
The islands had been stripped bare.
Images depict a post-apocalyptic landscape of windswept, deforested islands with only the occasional coconut tree protruding above the surface. In other places, the desolate terrain was littered with deteriorating concrete buildings, cracked asphalt roads, and abandoned construction and military equipment.
When they visited, they witnessed the effects of over three decades of American military testing.
In 112 days in 1958, the US dropped 35 bombs on the Marshall Islands. Nine of these were on Runit Island in Enewetak. The explosives, dubbed Butternut, Holly, and Magnolia, went out in the air, at sea, and on top of islands.
On August 6, 1958, a test shot called Quince went awry and splattered plutonium fuel all over Runit Island. The Department of Defense and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory dispatched soldiers into the polluted ground zero to fund the test to prepare the area for the next bomb, which would go off 12 days later.
Government stories disagree on the specifics, but it appears that soldiers came in with bulldozers and other earthmoving tools and pushed the radioactive soil into large trash mounds that they either pushed into the lagoon or the ocean or left alone.
The fact that 130 tons of soil were hauled 5,300 miles from an atomic test site in Nevada and placed into a 30-foot-wide, 8-foot-deep “conical plug” where the next bomb, Fig, exploded is obvious and has never been reported before.
According to archival papers, the dirt may have been used in an experiment to understand better how different soil types affect bomb effects and crater sizes.
The soil was pure and was obtained from Area 10 at the Nevada Test Site, according to Terry Hamilton, a researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and currently the Department of Energy’s lead person on the Marshall Islands’ nuclear problems. Government data show that in 1951 and 1955, two nuclear explosions took place in the vicinity of the Nevada site.
Sen. Ading, the Marshallese minister of justice, immigration, and labor, described it as “appalling” that people in the Marshall Islands, particularly those in Enewetak, are only now learning about it.
Teams from the Department of Defense created a fresh experiment in 1968, ten years after the last one. This time, they tested bacteria-filled bombs and missiles to destroy opposing troops.
In Enewetak, U.S. government scientists arrived with “their boats, space suits, and jet fighter planes,” according to a 2002 military fact sheet and Ed Regis, the author of “The Biology of Doom.”
They sprayed clouds of biologically enhanced staphylococcal enterotoxin B, an incapacitating biological agent known to cause toxic shock and food poisoning and regarded as “one of the most potent bacterial superantigens.”
On Lojwa Island, where American forces were stationed ten years later for the atoll’s cleanup, the germs were first sprayed, covering a large portion of the lagoon.
Military records state that the weapons testers determined that a single weapon could reach 926.5 square miles, or about twice the area of present-day Los Angeles, and result in a 30% mortality rate.
According to the Defense Technical Information Center, a division of the Department of Defense, records of the test are still under wraps, including a two-volume, 244-page summary of Operation “Speckled Start,” as it was known.
What Happened to The Runit Dome?
The Tomb now resembles the Houston Astrodome’s elderly, neglected, and significantly smaller cousin, 40 years after it was built.
On its cap, a spiderweb whipsaws, and its exterior is punctured by pieces of missing concrete. Brackish pools surround its base, and its flanks are covered in vines and other vegetation.
The Tomb was erected to contain the most radioactive and poisonous land-based waste from the U.S. testing programs in Enewetak Atoll.
It was constructed on top of an unlined crater with a U.S. nuclear weapon left. U.S. government documents state that this comprised metal pieces tainted with plutonium, irradiated military and construction equipment, contaminated soil, and 43 bombs that exploded in this 2.26-square-mile lagoon.
It took 4,000 U.S. servicemen three years to collect enough radioactive soil and contaminated debris to fill 33 Olympic-sized swimming pools from islands scattered throughout the atoll and dump it into the crater on Runit Island.
It was blended with concrete and put into the hole, later covered with a concrete dome. According to news accounts, hundreds of people suffered radiation-induced malignancies and other illnesses that the US government has refused to acknowledge.
Six men died during the cleaning. But rising waters could open a poisonous tomb.
On Runit Island, an 18-inch-thick cover was placed over a bomb crater that contains more than 3.1 million cubic feet of radioactive waste.
What Lies Below the Dome
At a hole from one of the nuclear tests, contaminated soil and debris from 43 nuclear bombs that exploded in Enewetak Atoll have been sealed off. The dome, built in the late 1970s, is beginning to deteriorate. If it fell apart, its radioactive contents would be spilled into the lagoon and ocean.
Bob Retmier, a retired electrician from Huntington Beach who served two six-month tours of duty at the dome in 1977 and 1978, remarked, “It’s like they say in the Army. They feed us shit and keep us in the dark, treating us like mushrooms.”
Retmier said he only knew he had been working in a radioactive environment when he read about the dome in The Times in 2019. Retmier was in Enewetak with Company C, 84th Engineer Battalion, out of Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.
He continued, “They had us combining that earth into cement. There were no masks, respirators, or, for that matter, bug suits. I wore combat boots, shorts, and a cap as my outfit. There it was. There is no shirt. Absent are glasses. To wear anything else would have been too hot and muggy.”
Unclassified military documents claim that the dome’s completion satisfied “a moral commitment incurred by the United States.”
Officials from the Marshall Islands claim they were never informed that American authorities were concerned about the dome’s long-term ability to contain trash safely.
U.S. government representatives met on February 25, 1975, to explore different cleanup options, including ocean dumping and shipping the garbage back to the U.S. mainland, according to a 1981 military document documenting the dome’s construction.
Many people in attendance “seemed to grasp that radioactive material was pouring out of the crater even then and would continue to do so,” the memo stated.
But because the alternatives were so pricey, they decided on the dome and used military people rather than contractors to handle the cleaning.
During that discussion, a senior Pentagon official was questioned about what would occur and who would be in charge of the dome collapse.
“That would be the duty of the United States,” said Lt. Gen. Warren D. Johnson of the U.S. Air Force, supervising the cleanup effort through the Defense Nuclear Agency.
Records reveal that fresh, highly contaminated debris was found as construction crews were sealing the dome with an 18-inch concrete cover.
Parts of the concrete top were polluted with metallic debris while adding that material to the garbage dump.
The construction of the dome by the military was “sloppy,” according to Paul Griego, a contract radiochemist for Eberline Instruments in Enewetak.
The dome was “intended to hold material and prevent erosion rather than operate as a radiation shield,” according to the report’s authors. Hence, the presence of radioactive material in the dome cover was of no consequence.
U.S. authorities insist that the dome’s “original purpose”—to retain waste rather than necessarily operate as a radiation shield—has been fulfilled.
But that distinction is not commonly known in the Marshall Islands, where many believe the United States built the dome to protect them.
The winter tides sent over 120 cubic yards of radioactive waste onto Runit’s shores shortly after the dome was finished. This prompted US authorities to construct a small antechamber next to the dome to house the fresh “red-level” debris.
They constructed a second, smaller antechamber as more material washed ashore.
Then they departed.
What Do the Researchers have to Say about the Runit Dome?
Hamilton, a contractor for the Energy Department, is the leading American scientist on Runit Dome. His work on radiation-related issues dates back almost three decades, and nuclear scientists and physicists highly regard him.
Hamilton described the waste facility as a “point source” in 2012 that was “incompatible” with U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission requirements due to its construction. He added that it could cause the environment to absorb additional plutonium.
He noted that there was a “growing commercial export market” for sea cucumbers in the lagoon and that “any increases in plutonium availability will have an impact on food security reserves for the local population.”
He co-authored the paper with two colleagues from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
“The islands are secure, US researchers are keeping an eye on the situation, and nobody need be alarmed,” according to Hamilton’s statement from more recent years.
Michael R. Pompeo, the secretary of state, traveled to Micronesia in August to meet with the presidents of various Pacific island countries, including the Marshall Islands.
Obama declared that the United States intended to continue its agreement with the Marshall Islands, which provides help in return for a reliable military presence and employment rights for Marshallese in the country.
The Marshallese needed to prepare for the revelation, as they expected their compact, which involves yearly grants from the US totaling around $30 million per year, to expire in 2023.
Marshallese officials interpreted such as evidence of increased negotiating leverage for the islands.
“These are life-or-death issues,” said Ading, the senator from Enewetak. “We must rely on more than one source’s claims. We need unbiased experts worldwide to weigh in, support, or refute prior U.S. results.”
Many Marshallese claims they only need a safe and secure place to live in the Marshall Islands, not money or apology letters from the United States.
Nerje Joseph dreams of the day her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will visit her family home in Rongelap. She will be buried there beside her ancestors beneath the coconut trees she vividly recalls, in the sands of her youth.
“You make Titanic-themed movies in Los Angeles. Concerning those who have lost everything,” she remarked. “Why do you not create films about us?”
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