The Runit Dome is a Radioactive “Tomb” That’s Slowly Cracking Open

The Marshall Islands, more specifically Runit Island of the Enewetak Atoll, have recently received widespread attention because of the Runit Dome. The Runit Dome is a giant concrete structure by the edge of the island filled to the brim with toxic nuclear waste. The waste was placed there in the 1980s by the US government, who nevertheless refuses to take responsibility for the Dome’s quickly deteriorating state and the fallout that the islands have experienced.

The LA Times reported earlier this month that the damage caused by the Dome’s radioactivity has been much worse than previously thought, and that even a full breakdown of the dome might not make the radioactivity in the area worse than it already is. The seawater and soil surrounding the site are already heavily contaminated, and the damage stretches so far that locals living over 12 miles away experience radioactivity-related diseases like thyroid disease and cancer. The Dome’s sordid history is full of disasters like these, and seems to be leading to the greatest disaster of them all.

The Nuclear History of the Marshall Islands

The Runit Dome’s story begins before its construction, in 1946 when the US commenced nuclear and traditional bomb testing in the Marshall Islands. A barrage of over 60 bombs was detonated on and around the islands over a period of twelve years, devastating the local environment and forcing the local communities to evacuate. Military bases were established all over the Enewetak Atoll in order to deploy soldiers to the bomb sites to clean up the excess of nuclear waste after the bombings.

After the US was ordered to put a moratorium on nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, they moved on to biological weapons, including clouds of staphylococcal enterotoxin B, a manmade toxin created from the antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus bacteria. This chemical induces toxic shock as well as food poisoning, and the government dispersed it over an area about twice the size of Los Angeles, over nine hundred square miles. Ten years later, soldiers were stationed on these same islands to clean up the wreckage caused by the extensive and invasive testing conducted by the US military years before.

It was these same soldiers that built the Runit Dome and transported the 3.1 million cubic feet of waste into the pit that would become such a controversial topic so many years later. The waste consisted of twisted and destroyed equipment, building structures, and bits of landscape that had been contaminated by the nuclear fallout and the biological weapons tested by the US on the Marshall Islands. 

The soil at the base of the Dome is 130 tons of contaminated soil from test sites in Nevada, soil that US government officials claim was clean. It did not come to light until recently that this soil was brought from Area 10, a nuclear test site where two nuclear blasts had been detonated in the 1950s. This soil was allegedly brought to Runit Island to test the effects of the bombs on different soil types, and was then left there when tests were complete. This Nevada soil is all that makes up the base of the great pit filled with waste.

A shot of the dome in the 1970s, shortly after it was constructed.
A shot of the dome in the 1970s, shortly after it was constructed.

There were no precautions taken to keep the radioactivity from seeping into the porous coral rock that makes up the island. Initial plans to line the pit with concrete were scrapped, and the larger waste was simply mixed with a concrete slurry and dumped into a crater caused by a previous nuclear strike. The millions of cubic feet of contaminated soil and rock was piled on top, with minimal protective coating. A polyethylene sheet was placed over placed over the waste, and an 18 inch thick concrete barrier placed on top of that. And that was all the protection the inhabitants of the island were offered.

The US government claims the barrier was never meant to contain the radioactivity and was only meant to contain the physical waste, but residents and officials of the Marshall Islands say they were misled to believe that it was meant to protect them from the high radioactivity of the materials kept within – materials including large amounts of plutonium, one of the most toxic substances known to man. Instead, radioactivity has been steadily seeping out of the Dome and into the island’s land and waters since its three-year construction in the 1980s.

The soldiers who built the pit and filled it with concrete and contamination were not themselves aware of what they were doing. Survivors report that they worked without protective suits, laboring in the hot sun in the bare minimum of clothing to pile the dirt into what would one day become known as “The Tomb” by locals. Most didn’t know of the horror they had created until the recent publicity brought to light the tragedy created at Runit Island. Many suffered or died from radiation-related diseases, unaware that their time in the Marshall Islands had doomed them.

A Legacy of Destruction

The severe nuclear contamination of the local people and environment was at its most acute in 1954, when Castle Bravo was dropped near Rongelap in the Marshall Islands. The blast released tons of atomic ash into the air, which rained down on Rongelap and enveloped the people. Children thought the white, powdery substance was snow and played in it, but within days the people were suffering from the symptoms of radiation poisoning, including burns on their body, hair loss, and vomiting. It took the US government two days to respond to the disaster and evacuate the communities at Rongelap, by which time many people had already begun to develop severe radioactivity-related diseases.

Aerial photo of the Runit Dome. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY
Aerial photo of the Runit Dome. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY

Only three years after they were evacuated, and with the radiation still strong, the locals were persuaded to move back to their homes. Desperate for some return to normalcy, they complied, unaware that their real purpose was to serve as guinea pigs for the US nuclear program. Documents say that officials moved them back in with the intention of seeing how living humans responded to extended exposure to radiation. Unsurprisingly, most became ill or died from radiation-related diseases, including cancerous tumors and thyroid disease, including one child who died of leukemia.

Not much later, the locals begged to be evacuated again, relying on Greenpeace to rescue them from their dire situation. The US government turned a deaf ear and relayed no assistance, instead choosing to ignore the problem they had created. The inhabitants of Rongelap have yet to be able to return to their home, with elders hoping one day to at least be buried in their traditional graveyards with their forebears. The likelihood of this is low.

This type of disregard for the human lives that had relied on the islands of the Enewetak Atoll was characteristic of the entire program. Those who were allowed to return to their homes after the period of testing found a landscape barren and twisted, the wildlife gone and replaced by bomb craters and military bases. Thousands of refugees now live in the US along the west coast, forever separated from their homeland. The US government’s only repayment for this suffering was to half-heartedly scoop most of the waste into the Runit Dome and cover it up, hoping it would never be seen again.

The Current State of Affairs

Those who visit the Runit Dome today will find it already crumbling, with rising sea levels lapping at its edges. The water that seeps in and out carries toxins out into the local ecosystems, though US government officials claim this should have no effect on the people living there. The concrete itself is marked by cracks snaking across its panels, and chunks of the cover are missing, sunken in the water surrounding it or simply eroded away.

Runit Dome location
Runit Dome location

The normal wear and tear of over thirty years’ time has done this, a supposedly unforeseen circumstance that the US government refuses to acknowledge. Sea levels in the Marshall Islands have risen three times faster than the global average, increasing the wear on the Dome due to waves and flooding. It is only a matter of time before the waters completely cover the Dome’s surface, an eventuality which scientists say could cause the concrete itself to break in half or shift off and away from the pit. 

The levels of radiation surrounding the Dome are so high that US officials claim even a full collapse of the dome’s structure would not have a significant impact on the radioactivity of the surrounding area. Water seeps in and out of the dome with the tides, releasing toxins into the sea with each day and turning the nearby waters a brackish brown with waste.

The Dome is already emitting so much radiation that the waters outside the dome may be more contaminated than the materials inside. Those materials include a nuclear variant of plutonium, one of the most lethal substances on Earth if inhaled or gotten into the bloodstream. However, officials like Terry Hamilton claim the plutonium in the dome is not a concern for these very reasons. They aren’t convinced that the displacement of so much plutonium and other radioactive waste would create a significant impact on human or environmental quality of life in the area around Runit. 

If the dome were to crack or come off, billions of cubic feet of waste would be exposed to the air and water and could potentially become airborne or wash into the sea. With rising sea levels threatening to submerge the Dome entirely, this has become a much more real possibility, especially that of any amount of waste floating away into the ocean and potentially contaminating other areas.

Generalized schematic showing the layout and various design features of the Cactus crater containment structure
Generalized schematic showing the layout and various design features of the Cactus crater
containment structure

Of course, the levels present in the soil and water of Runit Island are already catastrophically high. Oddly enough, this has helped some of the wildlife, especially the plant life, thrive in the absence of human contact. An area that might otherwise be a tourist destination has gone completely untouched by human interference due to radioactivity concerns. Organisms like coral had flourished especially, until recently when record high water temperatures caused stress and death among the marine populations.

Many of these issues come back to climate change and the dual rise of water levels and temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. Increasing temperatures have caused fish kills and strained coral reefs in and around the islands, and water levels are threatening to contaminate groundwater and eventually cover some islands completely. This, combined with the effects of the radiation left behind at the Runit Dome and other testing sites, have left the Marshall Islands, the Marshallese people, and the ecosystems in turmoil.

Refusing to Follow Through

Despite the obviously devastating effects of bomb testing in the Marshall Islands, and even despite the recently resurfaced documents that have condemned the US government in the affair, the US has refused to follow through on reparations. Even the most basic of promises like monetary compensation for the damages done have yet to be met, with the US government providing only $4 million of the agreed upon $2 billion in reparations. Since 2003, they have supplied several million in grants per year, but nothing approaching the amount that the Marshallese government and people are due.

Government officials also refuse to acknowledge the severity of the situation, repeatedly claiming that the irradiated areas are fit for human inhabitance and that the collapse of the Dome would not and could not make the situation worse. They maintain this denial even in the face of the Marshall Islands government and claim they have paid their dues in full because of evacuation and relocation costs. They even state the dome has fulfilled its intended purpose, which was only to contain the waste and not the radiation, without acknowledging that even this simple purpose may soon fail.

These same officials object when anti-US graffiti is painted on the Runit Dome’s surface, demanding that it be removed and paying for its professional removal. The mayor of the Enewetak Atoll reluctantly agreed to allow its removal, concerned mostly with relations with the US and the potential revocation of the $30 million in grants reparations the US has been paying since 2003. As of 2019, this would amount to about $480 million, less than a quarter of the total reparations due. This is paid not solely to the inhabitants of the Enewetak Atoll but to the Marshall Islands as the whole, in response to pressure from the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, which was established to manage the claims the Marshall Islands government was leveling against the US government.

Other than these grants, little has been done to make up for the great harm caused to the Marshall Islands. Both Bikini and Enewetak Atolls were heavily bombed and irradiated after the mid-century testing, yet the US did nothing other than building the Runit Dome to rid the islands of irradiated soil and debris. The Dome was built to save costs and prevent the military from having to ship it back to US soil, but at this point in time it’s cost much more than it could ever have saved.

Changing Political Climates

The gravity of this cost has not gone unnoticed by the nations surrounding the Marshall Islands, some of whom have severed their connections with the US and declared alliance with China. The Solomon Islands and Kiribati, two former staunch US allies, recently cut ties with Taiwan and announced their embracing of China. This is part of a larger movement by China to gain political and military force in the Pacific and drive out US influence.

Needless to say, this has the US government concerned with the state of affairs in the Pacific Ocean, and with US relations with Pacific nations that may be targeted by China. The US has begun to actively pursue better relations with several Pacific nations in an attempt to counteract Chinese influence in the region and secure the US military presence. The US has thousands of troops in a number of Pacific countries, which gives them a significant investment in maintaining US influence in the area.

For better or for worse, this has forced the US to field some of the Marshall Islands government’s claims and entertain their requests for aid. The Marshall Islands do not have the funds or the infrastructure to defend the Runit Dome against the encroaching tides, so they’ve turned to the US for help. In the face of the potential of Chinese influence subsuming the Marshall Islands and offering the help the US will not, the US government has met with several Pacific nations, including the Marshall Islands.

Through these meetings, the US government has agreed to negotiate the compact that was established in 1986, which at the time freed the US government from any liability in exchange for the Marshall Islands’ ability to govern themselves. In 2023, the Marshall Islands will have the opportunity to renegotiate the terms of the compact and potentially pursue further and better enforced reparations demanded by an international council rather than the US-founded Nuclear Claims Tribunal. With little indication that the US will act otherwise, the officials and inhabitants of the Marshall Islands are relying on these negotiations to finally get some closure.

No Plans Moving Forward

At this time, with US resistance and denial going strong, there are no plans to do anything about the Runit Dome or the miles of devastation left in the wake of US testing. For now, it seems that anyone hoping for progress or reparations will need to wait for the 2023 renegotiations or further advances by China. Despite the ample evidence that the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands have suffered due to the nuclear and biological weapons testing in the middle of the last century, progress from the US is slow and reluctant.

At the rate the seas are rising now, by 2100, the Runit Dome may be completely submerged in water, causing unknown but undoubtedly catastrophic effects on the local ecosystems. Even before then, higher water levels will cause more severe flooding and storm waves, likely causing the Dome to break long before the island is completely submerged, as soon as 2030. Whether the US will act soon enough to stop this remains to be seen, as does what exactly they can do to rectify the situation.

This Concrete Dome Holds A Leaking Toxic Timebomb
This Concrete Dome Holds A Leaking Toxic Timebomb

As for the materials contained in the Dome, plutonium alone has a half life of about 24,000 years, meaning that it will be toxic for a long time to come. Where this toxin can or will go if removed from the Marshall Islands is still unknown and is likely part of the US government’s reluctance to act. If removed from the island, the waste has to go somewhere, most likely US soil, which will put US citizens at risk during and after its relocation. That also won’t solve the problem of the residual radiation in the soil and water surrounding the island or that of the local wildlife suddenly declining.

It’s most likely that the US will pay out further monetary reparations to build sea walls and other temporary fortifications once pressured by outside forces. This still leaves the Marshall Islands to fend for themselves when it comes to the radioactive waste, and attempts to remove the responsibility of actually acting from the US government and military. However, even an acknowledgment that reparations are due will be a huge step forward in US-Marshallese relations and could help to secure the US military’s position in the Pacific. Ultimately, this is what matters to the US government, and they’ll likely find the least expensive way to go about this.

Without the help of the US or another major global power, the Marshall Islands could be in trouble in 10 years or less. The islands themselves may soon become submerged, though locals are attempting to build sea walls to prevent this. Between this and the Runit Dome verging on failing, the situation is looking bleak for these Pacific residents who simply want to return home.