Back in the Atomic Age, the Marshall Islands served as America’s nuclear playground, because you can only explode so much in your own backyard before there ain’t no backyard left to explode. In all, the Pacific Proving Ground hosted 67 nuclear blasts, which produced at least 110,000 cubic yards of lethal nuclear debris, as well as soil which could only be considered fertile if the crop you’re raising is Fallout bosses. Thankfully, the U.S. disposed of all that in a safe and conscientious manner.
Nope, we just left it right there on Enewetak Atoll, though we did have the common decency to cover it up with something that looks like a football stadium, as is the American way. The massive concrete cap is known as the Runit Dome, though the slightly irradiated locals more accurately refer to it as the Tomb.
This was only a stopgap measure, of course, meant to keep the problem out of sight and mind until a more permanent solution could be settled upon. The more permanent solution settled upon was “not caring anymore,” so we left.
On November 1, 1952, the first successful test of a thermonuclear device, or hydrogen bomb, (codenamed “Mike”) was conducted as part of the “Operation Ivy” series of nuclear tests, on the island of Elugelab in Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.
This dome in the Pacific houses tons of radioactive waste – and it’s leaking
The Runit Dome in the Marshall Islands is a hulking legacy of years of US nuclear testing. Now locals and scientists are warning that rising sea levels caused by climate change could cause 111,000 cubic yards of debris to spill into the ocean
Black seabirds circle high above the giant concrete dome that rises from a tangle of green vines just a few paces from the lapping waves of the Pacific. Half buried in the sand, the vast structure looks like a downed UFO.
At the summit, figures carved into the weathered concrete state only the year of construction: 1979. Officially, this vast structure is known as the Runit Dome. Locals call it The Tomb.
Below the 18-inch concrete cap rests the United States’ cold war legacy to this remote corner of the Pacific Ocean: 111,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris left behind after 12 years of nuclear tests.
“Runit Dome represents a tragic confluence of nuclear testing and climate change,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, who visited the dome in 2010.
“It resulted from US nuclear testing and the leaving behind of large quantities of plutonium,” he said. “Now it has been gradually submerged as result of sea level rise from greenhouse gas emissions by industrial countries led by the United States.”
In total, 67 nuclear and atmospheric bombs were detonated on Enewetak and Bikini between 1946 and 1958 – an explosive yield equivalent to 1.6 Hiroshima bombs detonated every day over the course of 12 years.
The detonations blanketed the islands with irradiated debris, including Plutonium-239, the fissile isotope used in nuclear warheads, which has a half-life of 24,000 years.