Tag Archives: Runit Dome

The Cracks on the Nuclear Runit Tomb

Excerpts from the US Department of Energy Report on the Nuclear Runit Dome

The Runit Dome is a containment structure on Runit Island, located on Enewetak Atoll.  Enewetak Atoll is a former U.S. atmospheric nuclear weapons test site located approximately 2,300 miles west of Hawaii in the northwest Pacific Ocean. The Runit Dome,  which was built in the late 1970s, contains over 100,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and  debris [from the US nuclear weapons testing] that were encapsulated in concrete inside an unlined nuclear test crater, the Cactus Crater, on the north end of Runit Island. The site has remained a concern to the people of Enewetak. 

The Runit Dome is not in any immediate danger of collapse or failure, and the exterior concrete covering the containment structure is still serving its intended purpose, effectively reducing the natural erosion of the waste pile below by wind and water. Visual surveys of the exterior  concrete of the Cactus Crater containment structure have revealed the presence of cracks and spalls in the concrete cap. However, these cracks and spalls in the exterior concrete cap do not form sites for external or internal radiation exposure that impact or endanger human health or
the environment, or wildlife.

DOE has performed preventative maintenance on exterior surfaces of the containment structure, which will aid in the determination of any changes that
may occur in the condition of the concrete in the future. Any concerns about the imminent failure or collapse of the structure are unfounded.

The main safety concern to humans associated with leakage of radioactive waste from the Cactus Crater containment structure is the uptake of fallout radioactivity in marine foods. There are no data to suggest that the Cactus Crater containment structure, or more specifically, the radioactive material encapsulated in Cactus Crater, is currently having a measurable adverse effect on the surrounding environment or on the health of the people of Enewetak. However, DOE is in the process of establishing a groundwater radiochemical analysis program that is designed to provide scientifically substantiated data that can be used to determine what, if any, effects the dome contents are having, or will have, on the surrounding environment now
and in the future.

Long-term trends in the concentration of Pu in lagoon waters derived from retrospective analysis of a coral core collected off Runit Island show levels of Pu in lagoon waters are systematically decreasing. These data provide compelling evidence that the construction of the Runit Dome has had, and continues to have, a negligible impact on the wider marine environment….

The Cactus Crater containment structure remains vulnerable to wave driven over wash and flooding caused by storm surge and potential effects of sea level rise… It is
anticipated that any measured or modeled effects of storm events may help provide a better understanding of the long-term consequences of sea-level rise on mass-transport of dome derived radionuclides.

A Nuclear Leaking Grave

The Bravo test, the testiong of a nuclear bomb on March 1, 1954, in the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands resulted in an explosion that was 2½ times larger than expected. Radioactive ash dropped more than 7,000 square miles from the bomb site, caking the nearby inhabited islands.  “Within hours, the atoll was covered with a fine, white, powder-like substance,” the Marshall Islands health minister would later testify, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation. “No one knew it was radioactive fallout. The children played in the ‘snow.’ They ate it.”

The 1954 explosion was part of nuclear tests conducted as the American military lurched into the nuclear age. From 1946 o 1958, 67 U.S. nuclear tests were conducted in the Marshall islands….From 1977 to 1980, loose waste and top soil debris scraped off from six different islands in the Enewetak Atoll was transported to Runit island and was mixed with concrete and buried in nuclear blast crater. 4,000 US servicemen were involved in the cleanup that took three years to complete. The waste-filled crater was finally entombed in concrete.  The Runit Dome, also called locally “The Tomb”, is a 46 cm (18 in) thick dome of concrete at sea level, encapsulating an estimated 73,000 m3 (95,000 cu yd) of radioactive debris, including some plutonium-239. …The structure, however, was never meant to last. Today, due to disrepair and rising sea tides, it is dangerously vulnerable. A strong storm could breach the dome, releasing the deadly legacy of America’s nuclear might….

Cracks have reportedly started to appear in the dome. Part of the threat is that the crater was never properly lined, meaning that rising seawater could breach the structural integrity. “The bottom of the dome is just what was left behind by the nuclear weapons explosion,” Michael Gerrard, the chair of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, told the ABC. “It’s permeable soil. There was no effort to line it. And therefore, the seawater is inside the dome. 

According to Guterres, UN Secretary General, who refers to Runit Dome as nuclear coffin: The Pacific was victimized in the past as we all know, The consequences of these have been quite dramatic, in relation to health, in relation to the poisoning of waters in some areas.”

Excerpts from Kyle Swenson , The U.S. put nuclear waste under a dome on a Pacific island. Now it’s cracking open, Washington Post, May 20, 2019 and Wikipedia

The Runit Nuclear Tomb

[The debris left by the United States nuclear testing at the Marshall islands  were buried under] a vast structure is known as the Runit Dome. Locals call it The Tomb. Below the 18-inch concrete cap rests the United States’ cold war legacy to this remote corner of the Pacific Ocean: 111,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris left behind after 12 years of nuclear tests.  Brackish water pools around the edge of the dome, where sections of concrete have started to crack away. Underground, radioactive waste has already started to leach out of the crater: according to a 2013 report by the US Department of Energy, soil around the dome is already more contaminated than its contents.  Now locals, scientists and environmental activists fear that a storm surge, typhoon or other cataclysmic event brought on by climate change could tear the concrete mantel wide open, releasing its contents into the Pacific Ocean….

Enewetak Atoll, and the much better-known Bikini Atoll, were the main sites of the United States Pacific Proving Grounds, the setting for dozens of atomic explosions during the early years of the cold war.  The remote islands – roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii – were deemed sufficiently distant from major population centres and shipping lanes, and in 1948, the local population of Micronesian fishermen and subsistence farmers were evacuated to another atoll 200 km away.  In total, 67 nuclear and atmospheric bombs were detonated on Enewetak and Bikini between 1946 and 1958 – an explosive yield equivalent to 1.6 Hiroshima bombs detonated every day over the course of 12 years.

The detonations blanketed the islands with irradiated debris, including Plutonium-239, the fissile isotope used in nuclear warheads, which has a half-life of 24,000 years.  When the testing came to an end, the US Defence Nuclear Agency carried out an eight-year cleanup, but Congress refused to fund a comprehensive decontamination programme to make the entire atoll fit for human settlement again.

The DNA’s preferred option – deep ocean dumping – was prohibited by international treaties and hazardous waste regulations, and there was little appetite for transporting the irradiated refuse back to the US.  In the end, US servicemen simply scraped off the islands’ contaminated topsoil and mixed it with radioactive debris. The resulting radioactive slurry was then dumped in an unlined 350-foot crater on Runit Island’s northern tip, and sealed under 358 concrete panels.

But the dome was never meant to last. According to the World Health Organization, the $218m plan was designed as temporary fix: a way to store contaminated material until a permanent decontamination plan was devised.  Meanwhile, only three of the atoll’s 40 islands were cleaned up, but not Enjebi, where half of Enewetak’s population had traditionally lived. And as costs spiralled, resettlement efforts of the northern part of the atoll stalled indefinitely.  Nevertheless, in 1980, as the Americans prepared their own departure, the dri-Enewetak (“people of Enewetak”) were allowed to return to the atoll after 33 years.

Three years later, the Marshall Islands signed a compact of free association with the US, granting its people certain privileges, but not full citizenship.  The deal also settled of “all claims, past, present and future” related to the US Nuclear Testing Program – and left the Runit Dome under the responsibility of the Marshallese government.  Today, the US government insists that it has honoured all its obligations, and that the jurisdiction for the dome and its toxic contents lies with the Marshall Islands.  The Marshallese, meanwhile, say that a country with a population of 53,000 people and a GDP of $190m – most of it from US aid programs – is simply incapable of dealing with the potential radioactive catastrophe left behind by the Americans.

Today, Runitis still uninhabited, but it receives regular stream of visitors heading from neighboring islands to its abundant fishing grounds or searching for scrap metal to salvage.…Three decades after the Americans’ departure, abandoned bunkers dot the shoreline, and electric cables encased in black rubber snake across the sand.Nowhere on the beaches or the dome itself is there a warning to stay away – or even an indication of radioactivity.

The US has yet to fully compensate the dri-Enewetak for the irreversible damage to their homeland, a total amounting to roughly $244m as appraised by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal.+++ Many locals are deeply in debt, and dependent on a supplemental food program funded by the US Department of Agriculture, which delivers shipments of process foods such as Spam, flour and canned goods. The destruction a centuries-old lifestyle have lead to both a diabetes epidemic and regular bouts of starvation on the island….

Other – and more worrying – traces of Enewetak’s history have also reached China: according to a 2014 study published in Environmental Science & Technology, plutonium isotopes from the nuclear tests have been found as far a the Pearl River Estuary in Guangdong province.

Many people in Enewetak fear that one day the dome will break open, further spreading highly radioactive debris.  As catastrophic weather events become more frequent, recent studies – including 2013 study of the Runit Dome’s structural integrity carried out by the DoE – have warned that typhoons could destroy or damage the cement panels, or inundate the island. A 2013 report commissioned by the US Department of Energy to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory acknowledged that radioactive materials are already leaching out of the dome, but downplays the possibility of serious environmental damage or health risks….

Independent scientists say that salvaging Runit’s scrap metal may expose locals to much higher risks.“Those guys are digging in the dirt breathing in stuff in hot spots. That has to be hundreds of thousands times higher doses of potential health effects than swimming,” said Ken Buessler, a senior scientist and marine chemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who visited Runit and gathered samples of sediment in the lagoon earlier this year…

“Why Enewetak?” asked Ading, Enewetak’s exiled senator during an interview in the nation’s capital. “Every day, I have that same question. Why not go to some other atoll in the world? Or why not do it in Nevada, their backyard? I know why. Because they don’t want the burden of having nuclear waste in their backyard. They want the nuclear waste hundreds of thousands miles away. That’s why they picked the Marshall Islands.” “The least they could’ve done is correct their mistakes.”

Excerpts from Coleen Jose et al., The radioactive dome on Enewetak atoll, Guardian, July 3, 2015

+++In June 1983, the Agreement Between the Government of the United States and the Government of the Marshall Islands for the Implementation of Section 177 of the Compact of Free Association (referred to as 177 Agreement) established the Claims Tribunal “with jurisdiction to ‘render final determination upon all claims past, present and future, of the Government, citizens and nationals of the Marshall Islands which are based on, arise out of, or are in any way related to the Nuclear Testing Program.”The Tribunal was established in 1988.

See also UN Human Rights report Mission to the Marshall Islands