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Nuclear radiation fears at remote atoll

Thursday 30 July 2015 | Published in Regional


ENEWETRAK – There are concerns that Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands has been washed over with radioactive waste, after it was hit by Typhoon Nangka earlier this month.

Typhoon Nangka caused significant damage to homes and infrastructure on the atoll.

The atoll is home to the Runit Dome which was built in 1979 to “temporarily” store radioactive waste produced from nuclear testing by the United States during the 1950s and ‘60s.

Locals have reported cracks in the dome’s concrete and radioactive waste leaking into the lagoon.

Journalist Giff Johnson said there are concerns the typhoon may have spread more contamination across the island.

“With a typhoon you get big waves and you get the churning of the lagoon. Did this stir up a lot of the plutonium and the radioactive waste that is in the sediment?

“But as far as I know, there has been nothing to track this. At least there has been no information provided about it if there has.

“As far as I know the Marshall Islands government doesn’t have any plans for dealing with the Runit Dome.

“I think both the Enewetak leadership and the Marshall Islands government state that this responsibility is with the United States, for ongoing monitoring and action regarding the dome and nuclear waste on Enewetak in general.

“I think that people in the Marshall Islands and Enewetak in particular, would like to see some solutions to this situation.

“They would like to see better monitoring. They would like more information. And if you talk to the elected leadership, they are quite blunt about saying the Runit Dome area should simply be blocked off.

“There should be a fence around it there should be signs. Things like that, like at a minimum outlining the fact that it is a hazardous place. It is an incredible thing out there on this far flung atoll.

“And beyond that I think people would like to see the entire atoll decontaminated.”

Underground, radioactive waste has already started to leach from the crater, according to a 2013 report by the US Department of Energy which said soil around the dome is already more contaminated than its contents.

The Runit Dome was used for Cold War nuclear testing by the US government from 1948 to 1958.

There were 42 tests in total on Enewetak Atoll, including 22 explosions on platforms, barges and underwater in the space of just three months in 1958, just prior to a moratorium on atomic testing.

The remote islands were considered distance enough from major population centres and shipping lanes, and in 1948, the local population of Micronesian fishermen and subsistence farmers were evacuated to another atoll 200km away.

In the late 1970s, an estimated 73,000 cubic metres of contaminated topsoil was deposited in the Runit nuclear test crater beneath the dome, according to a report commission by the US government.

The dome remains on the atoll despite the fact that it was only supposed to be a temporary measure.

Scientists now fear that a major storm, typhoon or other natural disaster could damage the 46cm thick dome, releasing nuclear waste into the sea.