Enewetak has been inhabited since about 1,000 BC. Like the other atolls in the Marshall Islands, the land and sea are stunning and put to shame any continental coastal vistas. Sitting on it, however, is a time bomb.
That time bomb is more than 3.1 million cubic feet of radioactive waste. In the late 70s, 4,000 U.S. troops were deployed to collect waste from sites, mix it with concrete and dump in a nuclear-test crater on Runit Island. It was then encased in a larger concrete dome, which some locals refer to as “The Tomb.” The soldiers were exposed to deadly amounts of radiation. The U.S. did not provide a concrete floor to the structure, so seawater gets in and compromises its stability. The Tomb is 30 feet deep and 360 feet wide.
Nuclear testing at Enewatak Atoll took place after the testing at the more famous Bikini Atoll. From 1948 to1958, however, there were 43 tests at Enewetak, far more than Bikini’s 23. These amounted to over 30 megatons of nuclear explosions, including the first multi-megaton nuclear device. Nuclear testing disintegrated parts of the atoll, including whole islands.
While many residents were evacuated from the nuclear testing sites in Bikini and Enewetak, some were on nearby atolls, such as Rongelap, were exposed to the fallout of the testing but not evacuated until several days later. On multiple occasions, Marshallese returned to their homes but were eventually made to evacuate yet again when it was determined they were unsafe.
Bikini remains uninhabited except for a few caretakers. People are living again on Enewetak. In the late 70s, U.S. servicemen returned to try to make the atoll habitable. When they were done three of the 40 islands were, according to the military, safe. Thirty-three years after evacuation the people of Enewetak returned to the atoll.
The U.S. government says that the dome is safe for residents, but locals are understandably skeptical about a cracking nuclear casing without a concrete floor. There is insufficient data to determine the total effects on surrounding areas, but nearby organisms have been found to contain unusual levels of radiation. Sand around the atoll has been shown to be more radioactive than the dump itself.
This year, the U.S. Department of Energy commissioned a study which was released in June. It found that the dome and its pollutants posed no danger to the area and would not for the next 20 years. It also states that the people of Enewetak have not had significant exposure to radiation and are not in danger from the nuclear waste.
In line with the way that many others feel, the DOE stated, “the most notable and immediate impact of rising sea levels on the [dome] is that associated with the physical effects of storm surge and wave-driven flooding.” To this end they have proposed a continued monitoring effort of the groundwater and its radioactivity.
Locals are understandably skeptical about the stated safety and the threat from rising waters is nothing new.
So — as with the rest of the country and so many islands — it all might come down to rising sea levels and the enormous decisions that will have to be made sooner than later. What can the U.S. and NGOs do?
Environmental justice is the idea that we all should endeavor to make up for the fact that the majority of people who live and work in areas polluted or worsened by corporations and governments are minorities and/or people of color. It would be difficult to find a starker example than of the people of Enewetak, who were shipped off their few square miles of land for 33 years, lands which were in that time decimated while local resources were rendered questionable at best.
Justice for victims of environmental aggression takes many shapes. Prevention, reparations, enacting laws to ensure future equitable access to resources and following recommendations of neutral parties are some forms it takes. Large-scale cleanup and removal efforts have also been a suggested place to start in Runit.
Enewetak and Bikini leave perhaps unanswerable, uncomfortable questions about how the U.S. government viewed and continues to view the Marshallese people—people who were at the time of the nuclear testing under their governance and protection. Imagine if the American military had dropped more than 70 megatons of nuclear weapons on populated parts of Hawaii or Alaska.
Enewetak atoll, its tomb, and its people and their stories continue on. The DOE says things are fine for the moment. Whether or not that is completely accurate, the kinds of plutonium isotopes that are left on the island have a half-life of 24,110 years. The problem will not soon go away on its own.
Geoff Goodman teaches Liberal Arts at the College of Marshall Islands. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org