Chernobyl of the Pacific

One of 105 U.S nuclear tests in the Pacific. This one is from Bikini Atoll in 1946, the Marshall Islands. (image has been colorized) Photo: US government/flickr

The children couldn’t believe their eyes. Is this what snow looks like? In 1954, the tropical Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean seemed to experience their first ever snowfall. Children played ecstatically and even ate the snow. Only, it wasn’t snow. 

Scientists were astonished. The world’s first weaponized hydrogen bomb was almost three times more powerful than expected, a staggering 1000 times greater than “Little Boy”, the nuclear bomb which demolished Hiroshima. A red flash followed by a seven-kilometre mushroom cloud disturbed the peaceful turquoise sky and sea. An area of almost 20,000 square kilometres – the equivalent to the entire country of Slovenia – was covered in radioactive white dust. 

After U.S and Soviet relations turned sour following the Second World War, the nuclear arms race really took off. Russia tested their nuclear and thermonuclear bombs in Kazakhstan, the French used Algeria and French Polynesia whereas the Brits practised nuclear tests in the Australian desert and over the Kiribati Islands. U.S test sites were located in several U.S states as well as in the Marshall Islands

Fallout from the explosion included plutonium-239, one of the world’s most toxic substances. Its radioactivity is expected to half within a staggering 24,100 years. The explosion scattered highly radioactive chunks of debris over all nearby atolls – some which were inhabited. Today, both Bikini and Enewetak atolls are 10 times more radioactive than Chernobyl. 

Runit Dome holds almost 2000 square meters of U.S.-produced radioactive soil and debris. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In order to limit the costs of the clean-up, the U.S government decided to use soldiers instead of specialist nuclear workers. Troops were ordered to collect the shattered toxic pieces into plastic bags and dump them into a crater on Runit Island, left behind by an old atomic bomb test. They were not instructed to wear protective gear and were never told about how dangerous their work actually was. A 40-centimetre thick dome of cement was constructed over the radioactive material as a temporary solution but is still the only protection insurance to this day. 

Its local nickname – “The Tomb” – is fitting for a nuclear dome with buried deadly contents inside. Since the project was deemed to be temporary, it has been left unrepaired. With cracks becoming visible, together with its nuclear contents leaking into the atoll’s lagoon, the situation has evolved into an alarming emergency. 

Many of the American soldiers who built the dome suffer from cancer today, and some of their children are suffering from birth defects. Their treatment bills are bankrupting families due to the U.S government not recognizing them as “atomic veterans”, which exclude them from special health benefits and radiation exposure compensation. Local Marshallese inhabitants are also suffering from thyroid cancer due to the radioactive fallout from the U.S bomb tests. 

Hilda Heine, president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, stated the following concerning the nuclear dome: “I’m like, how can it [the dome] be ours? We don’t want it. We didn’t build it. The garbage inside is not ours. It’s theirs.” 

Since the Marshall Islands received their independence in 1983 on the American condition that “all claims, past, present and future” tied to the nuclear testing were to be settled, the U.S no longer have legal responsibility for the inflicted nuclear damage on the island nation. 

Marshallese children greeting commanding General James Dickinson of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defence Command on his first visit to the island nation. Photo: Peterson Airforce Base/Lira Frye

The Marshall Islands and the U.S have always had very close diplomatic ties. Marshallese citizens may work, live, and study in the United States without a visa, and even find work in the U.S military without American citizenship. This has its origin in the long period of time when the Marshall Islands was administered by the U.S since the end of the Second World War until independence in 1983. 

Due to the lack of economic opportunity in the island nation, a third of its people have left for the U.S. Sea level rise at alarming rates due to climate change is another, if not the main cause of people migrating. The Island nation, comprised of 31 tropical atolls, will supposedly be swallowed by the ocean within the next 10-20 years. This has forced the nation to take a leading position in climate negotiations. “For us, it’s of course an existential issue,” said President Heine.

In addition to playing a frontrunner position in the work against climate change, the Marshallese government are loud opponents against nuclear weapons. They have even tried to sue the world’s nuclear powers. Despite the strong bond with the U.S, the Marshallese government have started to explore the possibility of legal action against the U.S government. For them, there is no climate justice without nuclear justice.

Marshallese President Hilda Heine greeting an American officer in Virginia, U.S. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, Greenland is facing a similar dispute as the tropical island nation. As part of a precautious military operation during the Cold War, American troops buried nuclear waste in the Greenlandic ice sheet. With the ice melting due to climate change, it has become crucial to safely remove the nuclear waste to avoid a nuclear level of climate disaster. Due to the lack of responsibility-taking from the American side, the Greenlandic government has lodged a formal complaint to the UN. 

To call the situation absurd would be an understatement. U.S nuclear waste is risking contaminating the North Sea due to melting ice sheets, which in turn risks U.S nuclear waste to be released into the Pacific due to rising sea levels. It is a game of radioactive dominoes that puts the fate of the planet at serious risk. 

Abandoned U.S military equipment is now a popular diving spot in Vanuatu, titled “Million Dollar Point”. This looks like an artillery piece. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There is another bizarre example of U.S military desertion. The island of Espiritu Santo was used as an American airbase against the Japanese in the pacific island archipelago of Vanuatu. After the war, the Americans urged the local islanders to buy the leftover military equipment in order to avoid transporting them back to the U.S mainland. When the locals refused, perhaps thinking the equipment were to be abandoned anyway, the troops dumped it all into the ocean. Today it is a popular diving spot, satirically named “Million Dollar Point” considering how valuable the sunken treasure was. It includes everything from jeeps, tanks, ambulances, and even crates with unopened Coca-Cola bottles. If the U.S army can’t have it, no one can. 

The complete lack of responsibility for military mishaps from the U.S government has become clear to the world, whether it’s in the Pacific or the North Pole. As been witnessed many times before in history, it’s the innocent who pays the price of the guilty. If our planet and international accountability is worth cherishing, responsibility also comes with it. 

Markus Barnevik Olsson