Giant clams and groundwater near a U.S. nuclear waste site in the Marshall Islands have been found to have high levels of radiation. Despite claims that the waste is contained and the ocean contamination is old, local scientists and environmental justice advocates believe the site was not adequately protected and is currently leaking.
The Marshall Island’s site was used as a testing location from 1946 to 1958. There, the U.S. military conducted 67 known nuclear weapons tests on coral reefs, a critical ecosystem now known to host up to 25 percent of all marine life. The nuclear tests included the detonation of the “Bravo” hydrogen bomb, which is thought to have been 1,000 times bigger than the bomb dropped in Hiroshima. According to a testimony by the Marshall Islands’ health minister, the bomb covered the islands in white ash, which children played with and even ate, thinking it was snow.
In 1977, the U.S. military piled contaminated ash and soil into an atoll– a ring shaped reef– and topped it with 18 inches of concrete. Perhaps it was meant to be a temporary fix, as the bottom of the containment was never insulated, but the structure has remained for 42 years. Visible cracks in the concrete leads many researchers to believe that there is likely leakage at the bottom as well.
“The bottom of the dome is just what was left behind by the nuclear weapons explosion. It’s permeable soil. There was no effort to line it. And therefore, the seawater is inside the dome,” said Michael Gerrard of Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
U.S. Department of Energy scientists claim it is safe to eat small amounts of the giant clams, which are a delicacy in the islands as well as an export to China. However, international scientists widely distrust their claim that since there is no direct proof of leakage, the contamination to the shellfish and lagoon is just from the old testing and not from ongoing spillage.
“What they’re saying is, here is the dome. And here, in the lagoon area, there is radiation… But as far as leaking from the dome, we don’t think that’s the case? The doesn’t make any sense,” said Mayor James Matayoshi of Rongelap Atoll.
Image via UNESCO