After twelve years of nuclear weapons testing on the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean the US built a radioactive dump in a bomb crater on Runit, one of the islands that hadn’t been vaporised.
The site was built in 1979 and Runit has been designated as off limits for the next 24,000 years which is the half life of the plutonium contained under the structure’s flying saucer-like dome. Despite the structure being less that 30 years old, according to WA Today…
…while the views from the top are stunning, it is a sobering experience to climb. Cracks riddle the surface, many water-stained at the edges and crumbling. Some spalls are so large, birds have laid eggs in them. The concrete cap - 45 centimetres thick and peppered with plutonium waste - contains at least two holes 15 centimetres deep. Below lie thousands more cubic metres of radioactive waste.
It’s 85,000 cubic metres to be exact, the by-product of 67 US nuclear weapons tests. And yet the US Department of Energy has declared ‘the US has no formal custodial responsibilities for the site’. The inhabitants of the surrounding islands have already had to deal with the legacy of the nuclear testing – cancers and birth defects.
The US government offered $400 million between 1964 and 2004 ‘in full and final settlement of all past and future claims deriving from the nuclear tests.’ In other words, the US has washed its hands of the islanders and the dome on Runit.
The dome is, of course, remote enough that it doesn’t threaten the health of American citizens which was why the islands were chosen in the first place. There's no danger of pictures of people with thyroid cancer or deformities upsetting American newspaper readers over their breakfast. There’s no footage of the US’s nuclear legacy on Fox News.
One would expect that nuclear waste dumps built in the US will be to a better standard. But this case demonstrates once again that burying nuclear waste demands binding commitments, both financially and morally, from future governments. These are commitments that we cannot, by their very nature, ask for and they extend into a distant future we cannot predict. As the Marshall Islanders have discovered, such commitments can be very short lived indeed. If only plutonium had a half life as short.