Scattered like pebbles in a massive pond, the Marshall Islands, located in the Pacific Ocean about 2,500 east of Hawaii, consists of 29 atolls (for those who slept through Geography 101, an atoll is a ring-shaped chain of islands formed of coral), containing 1,156 small islands and islets. (The official name of this island country, with a population of 59,000 people, is the Republic of the Marshall Islands; it was never formally adopted as a state, and is therefore considered a “United States associated state.”) One of these coral atolls, is the Enewetak Atoll, consisting of 40 tiny islands and a population of 664 people (known as the Marshallese). As you fly above the atoll, one witnesses some of the bluest seas, punctuated with tiny islands outlined by beautiful white sand beaches; and as you head toward the northern part of the atoll, one comes across something incredibly surreal — what appears to be a massive perfectly round beached alien space ship straight out of some apocalyptic sci-fi movie. WTF is this thing and why is it there? To answer these questions, let us go back in time 70 years to learn about the island that time has largely forgotten.
The Enewetak Atoll has to be one of the most unfortunate places on the planet. First, between 1948 to 1958, the United States conducted 43 nuclear tests on the atoll. In one of the tests, the bomb did not explode properly, scattering small chunks of radioactive plutonium all over the islands. Second, the Enewetak Atoll is located just 215 miles east from the Bikini Atoll, where the United States conducted 23 nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958 at seven test sites — underwater, on the reef, inside the atoll, and in the air — the combined release of energy equivalent of 30 million tons of TNT! Holy crap! (For comparison, the blast from Little Boy, dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, released energy equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. Fat Man produced an explosion equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT.) You can imagine what happened to the island. It is extremely radioactive and is uninhabitable for more than 24,000 years — it makes the Chernobyl nuclear disaster looks like a small grassfire. And guess what else happened? During some of the tests, weather forecasts that predicted that the winds would be blowing away from Enewetak were wrong. Surprise! — all that nuclear fallout blew right into those inhabited islands causing an epidemic of radiation sickness.
So what did the U.S. government do? In typical government fashion, military leaders decided to spend $100 million to do a half-assed job. Of course, the military leaders vastly underestimated the costs of the clean-up: in the end, it cost taxpayers more than $239 million! Over a three year period (1977-1979), the government sent thousands of unsuspecting military members (they were told that they were serving on “an island paradise”) to scrape off top soil and debris from nearby islands and bury all of this material in one of the blast craters on Runit Island. In addition, the soldiers had to bag over 400 radioactive chunks of plutonium without wearing any protective or safety gear. (Recall the horrifying scene in HBO’s Chernobyl when the military sends those unsuspecting cleanup workers to the reactor site where radiation exposure was equivalent to 80,000 to 160,000 chest x-rays.) It is estimated that the crater contains up to 95,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris. The crater was then capped with a massive dome of concrete, known as the Runit Dome (locals call it “The Tomb”) — the alien space ship mentioned earlier in this post. Visually, it is spectacular. Imagine this large, round concrete structure, 377 feet in diameter, made up of 358 concrete panels of slightly different shades of gray, each 18 inches thick. People are forbidden to visit Runit Island, but surprisingly, there are no warning signs or barriers of any kind to discourage trespassing.
The geniuses who designed the contamination container in a “cost-saving” move, did not line the bottom of the crater, which is made of porous coral and sand. So even though the crater was capped with a massive dome of concrete, it has been leaking radioactive debris for decades. Studies have shown that the sediments in the lagoon are more radioactive that the debris contained in the dome. If that isn’t bad enough, the dome has been deteriorating as rising sea levels, due to climate change, are causing radioactive elements to seep into the ocean. Furthermore, experts are concerned that the dome can no longer withstand a typhoon. A typhoon would completely destroy the concrete dome, releasing tons of radioactive elements that will contaminate the Pacific Ocean for thousands of years.
Sadly, many of the soldiers who worked on the Runit Dome have come down with illnesses (cancer, tumors, brittle bones, skin lesions, birth defects, etc.) related to their exposure to radioactive contamination, and consequently facing crippling medical bills. Moreover, many of these soldiers have died at a young age, suffering terrible pain, as a result of radiation poisoning. A declassified cable (1972) from the U.S. government states: “Radiological conditions Runit island… the number of nuclear devices exploded on Runit and subsequent earth and debris moving activities have resulted in a complex radiological situation in which each unit division of island is unique from adjacent islands… Actual surveys have been superficial but have identified the presence of a plutonium bearing sand layer outcropping on the ocean side of the midisland area and the existence of apparently solid plutonium bearing chunks, grains and other particulate on the island surface.” The government’s response has been to deny the problem by denying that the soldiers’ illnesses are not linked to the work on the island (they deny that it was a nuclear clean up project) and refusing them healthcare and refusing them the medical help they need. Decades later, the soldiers continue to battle for justice.
In the documentary, “This Concrete Dome Holds A Leaking Toxic Time Bomb” Enewetak veteran Ken Kasik, now restricted to a hospital bed due to declining health, makes a powerful statement that evokes the same lessons of the Chernobyl disaster: “There’s nobody trained [for] the [removal of] atomic waste. There’s people trained in the actual making of bombs, testing the bombs, and all like that, but not [for] picking [up the waste from the bomb.] You cannot get rid of this. The island should just be destroyed… America dumped all of their worst rubbish to the Marshallese and abandoned them with it — and we don’t want to hear about it. It’s a disgusting shame and it it makes us look bad.” In many ways, it seems that Runit Dome is America’s Chernobyl, a cold, concrete tomb that continues to haunt its victims psychologically and physically.
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For further information: “This Concrete Dome Holds a Leaking Toxic Time Bomb” on YouTube