How the U.S. betrayed the Marshall Islands, kindling the next nuclear disaster

Photography and videography by CAROLYN COLE. Graphics and design by LORENA IÑIGUEZ ELEBEE and SEAN GREENE

NOV. 10, 2019 | REPORTING FROM MAJURO, MARSHALL ISLANDS

Five thousand miles west of Los Angeles and 500 miles north of the equator, on a far-flung spit of white coral sand in the central Pacific, a massive, aging and weathered concrete dome bobs up and down with the tide.

Here in the Marshall Islands, Runit Dome holds more than 3.1 million cubic feet — or 35 Olympic-sized swimming pools — of U.S.-produced radioactive soil and debris, including lethal amounts of plutonium. Nowhere else has the United States saddled another country with so much of its nuclear waste, a product of its Cold War atomic testing program.

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States detonated 67 nuclear bombs on, in and above the Marshall Islands — vaporizing whole islands, carving craters into its shallow lagoons and exiling hundreds of people from their homes.

U.S. authorities later cleaned up contaminated soil on Enewetak Atoll, where the United States not only detonated the bulk of its weapons tests but, as The Times has learned, also conducted a dozen biological weapons tests and dumped 130 tons of soil from an irradiated Nevada testing site. It then deposited the atoll’s most lethal debris and soil into the dome.

Now the concrete coffin, which locals call “the Tomb,” is at risk of collapsing from rising seas and other effects of climate change. Tides are creeping up its sides, advancing higher every year as distant glaciers melt and ocean waters rise.

Officials in the Marshall Islands have lobbied the U.S. government for help, but American officials have declined, saying the dome is on Marshallese land and therefore the responsibility of the Marshallese government.

“I’m like, how can it [the dome] be ours?” Hilda Heine, the president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, said in an interview in her presidential office in September. “We don’t want it. We didn’t build it. The garbage inside is not ours. It’s theirs.”

To many in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Runit Dome is the most visible manifestation of the United States’ nuclear legacy, a symbol of the sacrifices the Marshallese made for U.S. security, and the broken promises they received in return.

They blame the United States and other industrialized countries for global climate change and sea level rise, which threaten to submerge vast swaths of this island nation’s 29 low-lying atolls.

“More than any other place, the Marshall Islands is a victim of the two greatest threats facing humanity — nuclear weapons and climate change,” said Michael Gerrard, a legal scholar at Columbia University’s law school. “The United States is entirely responsible for the nuclear testing there, and its emissions have contributed more to climate change than those from any other country.”

Over the last 15 months, a reporting team from the Los Angeles Times and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism made five trips to the Marshall Islands, where they documented extensive coral bleaching, fish kills and algae blooms — as well as major disease outbreaks, including the nation’s largest recorded epidemic of dengue fever. They interviewed folk singers who lost their voices to thyroid cancers and spent time in Arkansas, Washington and Oregon, where tens of thousands of Marshallese have migrated to escape poverty and an uncertain future.

Marshallese leaders acknowledge that America doesn’t bear full responsibility for their nation’s distress. But they say the United States has failed to take ownership of the environmental catastrophe it left behind, and they claim U.S. authorities have repeatedly deceived them about the magnitude and extent of that devastation.

A Times review of thousands of documents, and interviews with U.S. and Marshallese officials, found that the American government withheld key pieces of information about the dome’s contents and its weapons testing program before the two countries signed a compact in 1986 releasing the U.S. government from further liability. One example: The United States did not tell the Marshallese that in 1958, it shipped 130 tons of soil from its atomic testing grounds in Nevada to the Marshall Islands.

U.S. authorities also didn’t inform people in Enewetak, where the waste site is located, that they’d conducted a dozen biological weapons tests in the atoll, including experiments with an aerosolized bacteria designed to kill enemy troops.

U.S. Department of Energy experts are encouraging the Marshallese to move back to other parts of Enewetak, where 650 now live, after being relocated during the U.S. nuclear tests during the Cold War. But many Marshallese leaders no longer trust U.S. assurances of safety.

“We didn’t know the Runit Dome waste dump would crack and leak…. We didn’t know about climate change,” said Jack Ading, a Marshallese senator from Enewetak Atoll. “We weren’t nuclear scientists who could independently verify what the U.S. was telling us. We were just island people who desperately wanted to return home.”

Adding to the alarm is a study published this year by a team of Columbia University scientists showing levels of radiation in some spots in Enewetak and other parts of the Marshall Islands that rival those found near Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Such discoveries could give Marshallese leaders fresh ammunition to challenge the 1986 compact, which is up for renegotiation in 2023, and also to press the United States to honor property and health claims ordered by an international tribunal.

The tribunal, established by the two countries in 1988, concluded the United States should pay $2.3 billion in claims, but Congress and U.S courts have refused. Documents show the U.S. paid just $4 million.

The U.S. position is that it has already paid more than $600 million for the resettlement, rehabilitation and radiation-related healthcare costs of communities affected by the nuclear testing, said Karen Stewart, the U.S. ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. She said inflation brings the number closer to $1 billion.

“The United States recognizes the effects of its testing and has accepted and acted on its responsibility to the people of the Republic of the Marshall Islands,” Stewart said in a statement.

In September, the Marshallese parliament, the Nitijela, approved a national nuclear strategy, which calls for a risk analysis and environmental survey of Runit Dome, an assessment of legal options for its cleanup and a new attempt to secure the $2.3 billion ordered by the tribunal.

Last month, Marshall Islands lawmakers called on the international community to reduce greenhouse gases causing what they declared to be a “national climate crisis.”

China is taking an increasing interest in the Marshall Islands and other Pacific island nations, in part because of their strategic location and Beijing’s interest in reducing U.S. influence in the region. Those inroads by China have alarmed U.S. leaders, forcing them to pay more attention to the grievances of Marshallese leaders such as Heine.

“This heightened interest,” Heine said, “should bode well for us.”

map of Majuro
Nerje Joseph, 72, was 7 years old when the United States detonated its largest nuclear bomb. The Castle Bravo test sent a mushroom cloud into the sky and unexpectedly irradiated parts of the northern Marshall Islands that she and her family called home.

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