The Marshall Islands are a nuclear catastrophe waiting to happen

The Marshall Islands host radiation levels that put Chernobyl to shame. Right now, it’s safe – but for how long?

Jul 7, 2019 |
5 min read

The threat and potency of nuclear bombs have been a universal ever-present for decades.  Few territories are more familiar with the devastation that nuclear weapons can cause can the Pacific though, and the Marshall Islands are facing a good reminder.

The Marshall Islands, located in Oceania, was formerly owned by the United States. The territory gained independence in 1986, which would ordinarily be a reason to celebrate. Unfortunately, in doing so, the Marshall Islands took on a burden they may not be prepared to manage.

You see, the Marshall Islands played home to some of the American government’s post-WW2 nuclear testing. While that may seem like a long time ago, the impact is still being felt today.

In fact, according to Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, certain parts of this small, unassuming territory are bearing radiation readouts that dwarf even Chernobyl. Admittedly, it’s just a matter of time action needs to be taken.

Ownership squabbles

We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here, though. Before reaching the potential dangerous epilogue of this story, we need to set the scene. Just how did this small, unassuming island end up being such a potential disaster zone?

As discussed, the Marshall Islands were formerly owned by the United States. They were passed through many different occupancies first, however.

Although the islands have played host to an indigenous population since time immemorial, Spain was the first foreign land to claim ownership. Spain made this official in the 19th Century, but by 1885 ownership had been transferred to Germany.

Then came World War 2. Germany permitted the Japanese military to assume control of the Marshall Islands, but the US armed forces stormed the beaches and claimed the territory in 1944.

The Marshall Islands were declared American soil until they obtained independence and recognition as the Republic of the Marshall Islands in the 1980s – through the Islands have been self-governed since 1979.

Wondering what this history lesson has to do with the dangerous levels of radiation located in the Marshall Islands? Well, that all stems from the territory’s time under US ownership.

The American government used the Marshall Islands as a nuclear testing site for their atomic bombs between 1946 and 1958. The most explosive of these was in Bikini Atoll in 1954; an experiment that would change the complexion on this territory forever.

Nuclear family

When asked to name the most devastating example of a hydrogen bomb in US history, most people will immediately think of Hiroshima.

The truth is, the test explosion that took place is Bikini Atoll was believed to be thousand times more explosive. This was a complete miscalculation by the US military, who had no idea their weapon was so potent.

The citizens of Bikini Atoll were naturally transported out of the territory before the bomb was dropped. Testing had begun sometime before, and the land was considered uninhabited since 1946.

All the same, the devastation had a lasting impact. By the time the bomb in question detonated – which became known as the Castle Bravo test – nobody within 7,000 miles was deemed safe. The blast radius was more massive than twice the size of what had been anticipated.

As you can imagine, there were consequences. The National Cancer Institute estimates that as many as 1.6% cancer diagnoses of Marshallians born between 1948 and 1970 were directly attributable to the Castle Bravo test. The issues didn’t stop here, either.

American scientists declared Bikini Atoll to be safe for repopulation in the early 1970s. This turned out to be far from true; by 1978, the residents were once again evacuated, as it was revealed the food grown in the territory was tainted by radioactivity. $2billion in compensation was due to the families impacted, but at the time of writing, that recompense is yet to be paid.

Think that’s the end of the story? Think again. Believe it or not, this story has yet another revelation that promises to have severe long-term repercussions.

Under the dome

Further tests took place later in the 1950s, with the Cactus test of Runit Island having arguably the most prolonged impact. While the Cactus test was comparatively small, and nowhere near the size of Castle Bravo, it gave the US authorities an idea.

Nuclear waste was transported to the blast radius left by the Cactus test, and a domed roof was placed over the top of the area. This was a quick and easy way to contain the damage caused by nuclear testing and secure the area.

Recently described as a “kind of nuclear coffin” by Antonio Guterres (Secretary-General of the UN, for the uninitiated), this dome was supposed to be a temporary measure. Construction of the dome took some three years, and cost over $200m – in addition to the lives of six workers.

The nuclear dome (or coffin, depending on your terminology of choice) was only ever supposed to be a temporary measure. This fell by the wayside when the Marshall Islands came under the independent rule.

Part of the agreement from the US in relinquishing their claim to the Islands was that they would wash their hands of all responsibility for their nuclear testing – both in the past and in the future.

The Marshallian authorities agreed to this, but now fears are growing that the ‘nuclear coffin’ is leaking. Ultimately, the construct is a mere 18 inches thick. With sea tides rising more and more every year, cracks have started to appear.

If the radioactive contents of the dome – which include Plutonium, one of the world’s most toxic substances – do manage to escape, life on the Marshall Islands will never be the same. In fact, it may just be extinguished.

What happens now?

If this sounds like scaremongering, we can only apologize. The fact remains, however, that this is a frightening situation. The authorities of the Marshall Islands do not have the financial ability or knowledge required to resolve this impending crisis, and the local people endure an uncertainty akin to living on a volcano.

It’s believed that the dome is already leaking, though this is yet to result in health issues for the local population. This cannot be sustainable, though. Something must be done. Perhaps the authorities can follow the lead of Hiroshima or Chernobyl and plant sunflowers, which can absorb some level of the toxicity.

A more permanent solution is undoubtedly required though, and with a little luck, one will soon present itself. It’s a big and beautiful world out there. If the Marshall Islands were to suffer further irreparable damage, it would leave an ugly scar on history that will never truly heal.

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