In response to a directive from Congress, the Department of Energy released a report last week assessing the risks of a 50-year-old cracking and crumbling concrete nuclear waste repository in the Marshall Islands, but the findings did little to ease the concerns of Marshallese leaders in the Central Pacific.
The DOE report found that Runit Dome, a repository for atomic waste the United States produced during Cold War weapons testing, is sound and that radioactive leakage into the nearby lagoon is not significant.
After Congress grew concerned last year about the leaking dome, it ordered the Department of Energy to produce a report on the dome’s structural integrity amid climate change and rising sea levels.
The report noted that while sea level rise could increase storm surge, swells, and “lead to wave-induced over-wash of lower sections of the dome,” there is not enough definitive data to determine “how these events might impact on the environment.”
One Marshallese leader was disappointed the Department of Energy again downplayed the risks and declined to take responsibility for Runit Dome and its leaking contents.
“We don’t expect the Enewetak community to feel any safer based on this report as it doesn’t contain any new information from what they’ve seen … and don’t trust,” said Rhea Christian-Moss, the chairperson of the Marshall Islands’ National Nuclear Commission, a government-operated nuclear waste and radiation oversight panel.
“The report offers nothing new and is more or less what we expected to see,” she said, lamenting the Senate’s redaction of a critical line in the House’s mandate, which stipulated that the Department of Energy provide a plan detailing the removal of the radioactive waste into a “safer and more stable location.”
In December, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2020, which required the Department of Energy to provide a plan to repair the dome, evaluate the environmental effects of the dome on the lagoon over the next 20 years, and assess its structure and the potential risk to the people who live near it. The department was also required to assess how rising sea levels could affect the dome.
Christian-Moss noted data gaps in the report, as well, including the level of radiation in groundwater leaking from the dome into the lagoon.
“The absence of data to show any risk does not mean that there is no risk.” she said. “So my main takeaway from the report is that many risks are still ‘unknown.’”
Between 1946 and 1958, the United States detonated 67 nuclear weapons on, in and above the Marshall Islands. Forty-four of those bombs were detonated in Enewetak Atoll, where Runit Dome is located.
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.
The waste site, known alternatively as the Tomb, holds more than 3.1 million cubic feet — or 35 Olympic-size swimming pools — of U.S.-produced radioactive soil and debris, including lethal amounts of plutonium.
The radioactive material was collected, moved and contained by U.S. soldiers during the late 1970s. Many of those veterans say they were unaware of the contents and did not wear protective equipment.
The new report does not include a plan to repair the dome, which was required by Congress. Instead, the report’s authors state that “no further maintenance of the dome is required at this time” beyond conducting occasional maintenance to the dome’s cracking exterior, including the removal of vegetation. The report claims the visible cracking and spalling do not provide a hazard.