WASHINGTON — A concrete dome built decades ago by the U.S. government on a Marshall Islands atoll 2,800 miles from Hawaii has the state’s federal lawmakers worried.
The Runit Dome is a relic of America’s atomic past. It’s home to 3 million cubic feet of radioactive waste that was buried there as part of the government’s effort to clean up the mess left from dozens of nuclear tests in the 1940s and ’50s that decimated the atoll.
A warming climate and rising sea levels now threaten the integrity of the saucer-shaped structure, which, if it fails, could spill its radioactive contents into the Pacific, a scenario that would threaten both people and the surrounding environment.
Members of Hawaii’s federal delegation, led by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, recently secured a provision in the bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act to study what it would take to repair the dome.
It was among the top priorities for Hawaii, at least in the House. Hawaii Congressman Ed Case, who is a founder of the Pacific Islands Caucus, said the Runit Dome is of critical importance, not only for the islands but the U.S. as a whole.
“This is a concern on a number of levels,” Case said. “The basic one being: Is the Runit Dome capable, especially in a time of rising sea levels, of containing the very deadly radioactive waste that we deposited into that dome? The short answer is we’re not sure.”
Columbia University researchers published a study in July that found that the amount of radiation on Enewetak atoll, where the dome is located, and other parts of the Marshall Islands rival what’s been detected around Chernobyl and Fukushima, two locations synonymous with nuclear catastrophe.
The NDAA provision calls on the Secretary of Energy to submit a report to Congress within 180 days that includes a detailed plan to repair the Runit Dome and ensure that it “does not have any harmful effects to the local population, environment, or wildlife.”
The report should include an assessment of the current structure, cost analysis for the repair and a summary of discussions between the U.S. government and Marshall Islands regarding the dome.
In addition, the report will analyze how rising sea levels will affect the ability of the dome to contain the radioactive contents.
Case said the U.S. has an obligation to the Marshall Islands to at least analyze whether the Runit Dome is in danger of failure after it absolved itself of any responsibility through the execution of a Compact of Free Association, a treaty that effectively settled any claims related to past nuclear testing.
“The Marshall Islands obviously does not have the financial or human resources or expertise to effectively manage any issues that might be arising at the Runit Dome,” Case said.
“I think we owe it not only to the Marshalls but to the other islands of the Pacific to be sure we’re comfortable with what’s happening there, and, if we’re not comfortable with it, to determine what exactly we need to do to secure that waste.”
Case’s concerns about being a good ally come as the U.S. attempts to renegotiate its Compacts of Free Association with the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau.
The compacts give the U.S. military control over the countries’ land, airspace and surrounding waters, and are strategically important to American interests, especially as China tries to exert more influence in the region.
Gabbard did not respond to a Civil Beat request for an interview about the NDAA or the Runit Dome.
In June, Gabbard issued a press release stating that she was successful in including the provision for a public study in the House Armed Services Committee’s version of the NDAA.
She also noted that she was a co-sponsor of legislation named after former Hawaii Congressman Mark Takai that aimed to make it easier for veterans involved in the clean-up at Enewetak atoll to seek treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Takai died in 2016 of cancer.
“The Marshallese people are gravely concerned about environmental threats to the integrity of the storage site and the impact on their country,” Gabbard said in the statement. “The U.S. government is responsible for this storage site and must ensure the protection of the people and our environment from the toxic waste stored there.”
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