The US left the Marshall Islands with a toxic nuclear legacy – and a looming environmental disaster

The Marshall Islands, a stereotypically picturesque getaway in the Pacific, is the scene of a looming ecological catastrophe. The toxic legacy of nuclear weapons testing remains with the Marshall Islanders.

The Marshall Islands, located midway between Hawaii and Australia, was the site where the US conducted nuclear weapons testing, such as exploding their first functioning hydrogen bomb. Reefs and atolls were pulverised by these tests, 67 in all.

The nuclear weapons testing, conducted between 1946 and 1958, left a staggering legacy of ecological damage and associated health effects. The US authorities buried irradiated soil from the ‘ground zero’ of the weapons tests, the Enewetak and Bikini atolls in a massive concrete bunker. Decades after the military had stopped testing, the Runit Dome was constructed to store the waste from the numerous underwater and atmospheric nuclear explosions.

While weapons testing ceased, the nuclear waste problem did not go away.

The Washington Post reported, in May this year, that the concrete dome facility housing the radioactive waste was cracking. An ageing structure, as the dome is cracks, and sea levels rise due to climate change, lethal plutonium-239 waste threatens to leak into the Pacific. Water has begun to penetrate the dome, sparking fears of an environmental nightmare scenario for the Marshallese. Rising sea levels, and the increasing occurrence of typhoons and severe weather events are impacting the structural integrity of the concrete dome.

In the 1980s, the US military built a concrete dome – a ‘kind of coffin’ according to current UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres – to house the radioactive debris and waste. As a result of disrepair, and the increasing effects of climate change, the dome is cracking threatening to unleash an environmental catastrophe in the Pacific Ocean.

The US authorities did not admit to the Marshallese that they had transported tonnes of radioactive waste from Nevada to the atolls. The US military also did not disclose that they had conducted biological weapons testing in the Marshall Islands, in particular on Enewetak atoll.

Cracks have developed in the dome after decades of exposure

A study commissioned by the US Department of Energy in 2013 acknowledged that the Runit Dome is leaking while however downplaying the possibilities of environmental damage and health risks. Climate scientists have insisted that the Pacific waters are rising, and warming, and thus present a growing threat to the old concrete structure. Not only would the bunker be damaged, but groundwater reserves would become polluted.

After the US withdrew its forces, having occupied the islands in 1944 in the days of World War 2, the United States government accepted responsibility for compensating the Marshallese and cleaning up the toxic legacy of nuclear waste. However, the Marshall Islands authorities reported that compensation has been woefully inadequate, and cited a history of distrust towards the US.

The US signed a Compact of Free Association with the Marshall Islands – coming into force in 1986 – in which the latter gained nominal independence. As part of this compact, the US was released from all liabilities arising from the nuclear weapons testing and storage of plutonium waste in the dome.

The Los Angeles Times, in conjunction with the Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, sent teams of reporters to the Marshall Islands five times over a period of 15 months. They documented the ongoing environmental damage, and outbreaks of disease, that afflict the atolls.

From the Los Angeles Times:

“Marshallese leaders acknowledge that America doesn’t bear full responsibility for their nation’s distress. But they say the United States has failed to take ownership of the environmental catastrophe it left behind, and they claim U.S. authorities have repeatedly deceived them about the magnitude and extent of that devastation.”

The dome itself, containing 3.1 million cubic feet of radioactive soil, debris and plutonium, is the consequence of the US saddling the Marshall Islands with a polluting legacy. No other country has to face such potentially devastating consequences from nuclear testing – not even Belarus and the Ukraine, the nations immediately affected by Chernobyl.

Nejre Joseph is now 72 years old. At seven years of age, living on Rongelop Atoll with her family, she witnessed the largest thermonuclear explosion ever conducted by the United States, codenamed Castle Bravo. The nuclear weapons test, carried out on Bikini atoll in 1954, was in the words of Joseph, like watching two suns rise – the usual sunrise and then the explosion. This was the first weaponised hydrogen bomb detonated by the US military.

The fallout from that test rained down a white powder over hundreds of miles, contaminating the water, marine life, and the food and homes of the islanders. People on and near the atolls experienced skin burns, nausea, burning and eventually cancer. The Marshallese were unwitting human guinea pigs for the US military, which was testing the effects of radiation exposure on the human body.

Joseph has suffered radiation poisoning and has had her thyroid removed. She has been taking thyroid medication her whole life. Her example is typical of the health impacts suffered by the Marshallese in the aftermath of US weapons testing.

If the relevant authorities handling the fallout and consequences of the Chernobyl or Fukushima disasters had simply poured concrete on the area and left it, there would be howls of outrage in the media. Stinging condemnations would issue forth from international bodies, and activist-environment groups would find a receptive media willing to broadcast their message. The Marshall Islands are the forgotten ground zero.

This however, is a catastrophe which originates in, and is nurtured by, the actions of the United States. In our corporate media, outrage is selectively deployed against official ‘enemy’ nations – Russia, China, Iran, North Korea – the list is endless. The arrogance of our imperial overlords are rarely if ever questioned. A kind of tribalism is encouraged and promoted – surely we do not do things like that.

Do I think that the Marshallese are super-fantastic people deserving of special privileges? No, I do not. Do I think that there are no other equally important issues deserving of attention? No, I do not. Every political leader must take responsibility, and be accountable for, their decisions and actions. The US has consistently denied, or at least avoided, taking full responsibility for the mess which their predatory actions have created.

The Marshall Islands is where the Cold War legacy of nuclear weapons meets the modern, ongoing problem of climate change. Marshallese Islanders were exiled frim their homes, left in impoverished conditions, and with horrendous health impacts. The United States is a cowardly environmental vandal, damaging the lives of the Marshallese, and refusing to accept culpability. It is time to hold them to account.