On the Marshall Island of Runit, a concrete dome filled with radioactive waste is cracking open.

It contains 85,000 cubic metres of nuclear material—enough to fill 34 Olympic swimming pools—including the intensely toxic plutonium-239.

The contaminated soil and debris come from 67 nuclear tests the US conducted between 1946 and 1958.

Last Thursday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres confirmed Marshall Islands president Hilda Heine was “very worried” radioactive waste might leak from the “coffin.”

In 2013, the US Department of Energy (DoE) detected cracks in the concrete structure; in 2018, scientists found high concentrations of plutonium and caesium in the waters around Runit.

Because the crater was never properly lined, rising sea levels soak through the permeable soil, carrying radioactive elements into the ocean.

Were the Runit dome “in the United States (or subjected to U.S. regulatory authority),” it would be considered a “Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Site,” subject to “stringent site management and monitoring practices,” the DoE acknowledged.

But the Marshallese waived their right to claim nuclear damages upon signing the Compact of Free Association—despite the agreement enshrining US responsibility “to address past, present, and future consequences” of its nuclear testing.

Who is responsible for managing nuclear waste? Should local governments tackle the issue, or does this displace liability?

   

Credit for this article's header image goes to Getty.