“ Diamonds are forever but radiation lasts even longer”. (Chautauqua Hunter)
“To destroy your planet’s ecosystem for imaginary wealth is highly illogical”. (Mr. Spock, Star Trek Science Officer)
“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” (George Orwell)
Runit “Cactus” Dome is leaking and this is not good news. First a bit of background history in order to establish some context for the creation of this environmental time- bomb, located in the Marshall Islands; half-way between Hawaii and Australia in the geographic area of Micronesia. Runit is an island on the eastern fringe of the Enewetak coral Atoll, which is part of the chain of 40 islands surrounding a lagoon measuring some 50 miles in radius. It is the setting for master science-fiction writer, J.G. Ballard’s short story “Terminal Beach ”. Humans had inhabited this remote atoll since about 1,000 B.C. Spanish explorer Alvaro de Saavedra was the first European explorer to arrive in 1529 and later in 1794, British merchant ships came along , and then this territory became a German colony in 1885. Enewetak was captured by the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War I. In 1944, during the Battle of Enewetak U.S forces captured the island after a five day amphibious operation and thereafter it remained under U.S. Control and became part of our Pacific Atomic Proving Grounds. (Francis X. Hezel, The First Taint of Civilization: A History of the Caroline and Marshall Islands in Pre-colonial Days, 1521-1885, 2000).
Local residents were evacuated (forcibly re-located) from Enewetak after World War II and then from 1948 until 1958 forty-three nuclear tests were fired upon this atoll. As a consequence of the irradiated debris, including plutonium 239, Runit Island will not be habitable for the next 24,000 years, which is why it was chosen as a site for a 25 foot high, nuclear waste repository. Beginning in 1977, U.S. Service personnel simply scraped off the island’s topsoil,mixed it with radioactive slurry from other islands and buried 111,000 cubic yards (85,000 cubic meters) of this deadly poison into an unlined 350 foot (110m)wide atomic blast crater, left by the bomb-blast, code named, “Cactus”,30 feet (9.1m)deep. They sealed this crypt under 358 concrete panels, each supposedly 18 inches (46cm) thick. In truth,some of these panels were as thin as 12 inches and placed without any internal reinforcement or expansion joints. Officially known as Runit Dome; locals call it The Tomb. This ominous, unlined structure, completed in 1979, does not even meet the most basic American standards for landfills containing non-toxic household trash. From the air, the vast dome resembles some Sci-Fi or CGI downed and stranded flying saucer, partially sinking into sands which sit upon a coral foundation severely fractured by numerous nuclear blasts. (Michael B. Gerard, NY Times, December 3, 2014).
We now learn that this vast monument to human insanity was never intended to last and only constructed as a temporary fix until a more permanent solution could be found. Allegations of shortcuts and errors during the construction of this deadly dome include; the mysterious disappearance of up to 19,000 cubic meters of radioactive, seriously “hot” contaminants, destined for the Cactus crater which were reportedly dumped down into the clear sapphire waters of the adjacent lagoon; supposedly to create an artificial reef that was clearly not needed. At present, allegedly substandard Portland Type 2 concrete-cracks, riddle the surface while rising levels of Pacific waves lap along its edges.
According to a 2013 report by the U.S.Department of Energy,underground radioactive waste is leaching out of the crater and the soil around the dome is already more contaminated than its contents. (John Green, Intelligence: Creating Environments that Protect Human Health, 2009).
Locals, scientists and environmental activists are understandably concerned that a storm-surge, typhoon or other cataclysmic event, brought about by climate change,terrorist attack, or some other unknown, is likely to tear the weakened concrete panels open, or even inundate the entire island; releasing its lethal contents into the Central Pacific and far beyond,in view of the fact that the Pacific Ocean covers something like a third of our home world. To date, we know that according to a 2014 study published in Environmental Science and Technology, plutonium isotopes from the Enewetak nuclear tests have been detected in China as far as the Pearl River Estuary in Guangdong province.
A 2013 report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, acknowledged that radioactive contaminants are leaching out of the dome; while downplaying any possibility of serious environmental damage or threat to human health. Nevertheless, the DOE said that they were planning to repair some “cosmetic cracks” in order to restore public confidence. By now, if you are reading this, you are probably more than familiar with their predictable litany of bureaucratic spin-glish in regards to matters of radioactive contamination and public safety: .low or minimal dosages, (spurious) dilution solution, exposure no more than a banana or dental x-ray…and my personal favorite “We are unaware of any immediate danger at this time”. Never mind that hundreds of tons of radioactive materials are emitted every day from Fukushima’s three damaged reactors, directly in to the same Pacific Ocean, with no end in sight.
At present, Runit Island is uninhabited but receives a steady stream of desperate visitors from neighboring islands searching for scrap metal to salvage, as well as those seeking to explore and profit from its abundant (hot) fishing grounds. (C. Jose, K.Wall, J.H. Hinzel. UK Guardian, July 3, 2015)
Soon, I imagine that Runit dome will be included on a list of destinations for the growing field of atomic and disaster tourism, a relatively new “vacation experience”, in which travelers learn about Atomic History as well as a window into the American psyche. Must-have travel accessories would probably include a Geiger-counter… (Hazmat suits optional). More on the atomic aftermath in this region is available in “Bikini Atoll”: Waking to the Sound of Thunder: Trauma and The Human Condition II, A. St. Just, 2013).