The climate crisis just went nuclear
The climate crisis is the one issue that touches all the other issues. For example, the climate crisis is tied up in the dangers of nuclear weapons in ways that nobody predicted, but that the Los Angeles Times spent some time and money examining. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the United States set off 67 nuclear bombs in and around the Marshall Islands. This had predictable results: there were now lagoons where there were none before; some islands simply aren’t there any more, and there was a lot of deadly stuff left behind. Which brings us to the climate crisis.
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.
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.
When people talk about environmental justice, this is what they’re talking about.
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.”... 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.
The history behind all this is as tawdry as you might have expected it to be—an endless litany of lies, deception, and bureaucratic three-card monte, all of it designed to dodge any responsibility for the nightmares past, present, and future.
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...
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.
Can’t imagine why they’d think that.
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.
And what in the hell was this?
A decade later, in 1968, teams from the Department of Defense set up a new experiment. This time, they were testing biological weapons — bombs and missiles filled with bacteria designed to fell enemy troops. According to a 2002 military fact sheet and Ed Regis, the author of “The Biology of Doom,” U.S. government scientists came to Enewetak with “their boats and monkeys, space suits and jet fighter planes” and then sprayed clouds of biologically enhanced staphylococcal enterotoxin B, an incapacitating biological agent known to cause toxic shock and food poisoning and considered “one of the most potent bacterial superantigens.” The bacteria were sprayed over much of the atoll — with ground zero at Lojwa Island, where U.S. troops were stationed 10 years later for the cleanup of the atoll.
I don’t know what happens when the dome gives way, but I feel confident in saying a) it won’t be good, and b) we won’t hear about it for a couple of years, at least.