From 1946 to 1980, the U.S. military conducted a total of 67 nuclear tests, subjecting the test areas to repeated blasts and nuclear debris, reports the Washington Post.
The Castle Bravo test was the U.S. government’s first hydrogen bomb weapon, and it was 1000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Radioactive debris spread up to 7000 square miles away from the center of the bomb site.
Marshall Islands health minister testified, “Within hours, the atoll was covered with a fine, white, powder-like substance. No one knew it was radioactive fallout. The children played in the ‘snow.’ They ate it.”
The American government eventually moved the debris to Runit Island, and in 1980, a gigantic, 18-inch thick concrete dome was placed over it.
This was only meant to be a temporary solution. However, no further plans have been developed, and the dome remains extremely vulnerable. One strong storm could break the dome, and release the toxic, lethal remnants of the U.S. nuclear testing.
During a recent press tour in the Pacific Islands on the topic of climate change, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said:
“I’ve just been with the president of the Marshall Islands [Hilda Heine], who is very worried because there is a risk of leaking of radioactive materials that are contained in a kind of coffin in the area.”
In 1983, the Marshall Islands gained the right to govern itself, by signing a compact of free association with the U.S. However, this also settled all issues related to nuclear testing, and left the burden of the dome to the islands.
A 2017 report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation states that the materials include plutonium-239, one of the most toxic substances in the world, with a radioactive half life of 24,100 years.
The longevity of the substances, as well as the lack of the proper lining in the dome, are the main problems.
Michael Gerrard, chair of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, tells ABC: “The bottom of the dome is just what was left behind by the nuclear weapons explosion. It’s permeable soil. There was no effort to line it. And therefore, the seawater is inside the dome.”
As the Guardian reports, the Energy Department issued a report in 2013 admitting that radioactive material may have started to leak from the dome already, but the health risks were classified as low.
Today, it is obvious that the Marshall Islands government does not have the resources necessary to bolster the dome, which leaves it vulnerable.
A Marshallese official tells the Guardian, “It’s clear as day that the local government will neither have the expertise or funds to fix the problem if it needs a particular fix.”