A nuclear disaster looms in the Pacific Ocean

The U.S. tested atomic weapons in the Pacific 70 years ago, and many of the islands remain uninhabitable to this day. Nuclear waste was sealed in a bunker on Runit Island, but with rising sea levels, seawater is now penetrating the bunker and threatens to contaminate the Pacific Ocean. Barbara Barkhausen reports from Sydney.

Rising sea levels from climate change are leaching nuclear waste into the Pacific Ocean. (Image credit: Green MPs via Flickr)

The ocean is turquoise, the sand so white it burns your eyes. The island itself – overgrown with bushes and the occasional palm tree – juts out only a few metres above the water. Runit Island feels like an abandoned island in the Pacific Ocean, except for one distinctive feature: aerial photographs show a dome-shaped concrete structure with a diameter of around 100 metres.

Since the end of the 1970s, nuclear waste has been stored on the island, which belongs to the Marshall Islands and is located in the remote Pacific between Australia and Hawaii. Runit Island is home to 85,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste, including plutonium-239, one of the most toxic substances in the world. The waste sits directly on the soil of the island and is covered with a 50-centimetre-thick concrete cover. And it’s now turning into a threat.

Remnants of American atomic bomb tests

The nuclear waste is a remnant of American atomic bomb tests that contaminated huge swaths of more than 1,200 Pacific islands after World War II. The U.S. dropped a total of 67 atomic bombs in the Pacific region between 1946 and 1958.

An entire generation had to face the consequences of radioactive radiation: cancer, tumours, miscarriages and deformities. Many people lost their homes and were forced to relocate. To this day, many islanders are dependent on American imports as they have been forced to change their traditional diet of fish and local products like coconuts, which are still too contaminated to consume.

Dangerous side effect of climate change

Although some of the islands are habitable again, climate change is now causing problems that no one could have expected 70 years ago: rising sea levels are threatening to flood low-lying islands such as Runit Island.

Seawater is leaching through from below, and cracks can also be seen in the nuclear bunker itself, as a recent documentary by the Australian station ABC has revealed. A report by the U.S. Department of Energy pointed to the problem in 2013.

As the seawater penetrates the structure, radioactive material has now leached out into the surrounding waters.

If the leaks were to increase, this would be a “devastating event”, climate change activist Alson Kelen told ABC. “We’re not just talking the Marshall Islands, we’re talking the whole Pacific.”

Islanders fear relocation

Michael Gerrard from Columbia University in New York also sees the situation as critical. Already now the sea sometimes washes over the concrete dome in a large storm.

“The United States Government has acknowledged that a major typhoon could break it apart and cause all of the radiation in it to disperse,” said Gerrard, who would like to see the U.S. reinforce the dome.

A separate U.S. government report from 2014 came to the conclusion that the contamination in the waters surrounding the structure is already so high that a catastrophe would not make such a big difference.

This is of little comfort to the residents of the neighbouring islands. They fear that if the dome collapses or crumbles, they will once again have to leave their homes and be relocated, reported ABC.

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