Geological disaster in our future as Runit dome concealing nuclear waste threatens to seep out


Between 1946 and 1958, the Marshall Islands was a testing site for nuclear weapons by the US. Domes were built around the large craters in the 1980’s to keep the nuclear waste from seeping out. However, It was discovered that due to climate change and rising sea levels, the dome has begun to crack. Now, studies have shown that unless the domes are fixed very soon, there will be a geological disaster sooner than anyone might have guessed. 

Under the dome located on Runit Island in Enewetak Atoll, there is approximately 3.1 million cubic feet of radioactive debris from 67 nuclear bombs by the U.S. If that radioactive material were to come in contact with the oceans surrounding it, the geological disaster that follows will have devastating effects on the planet as a whole.

A view from Google Earth shows the crater alongside the Runit dome at Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. (DESTINY RAMOS MARIN/ La Plaza photo)

At the time these tests were conducted, there were approximately 52,000 people living throughout the Marshall Islands. 

The first series of tests, Operation Crossroads, began on Jul. 1, 1946 in Bikini Atoll with the shot able test in efforts to investigate the effect of nuclear weapons on naval warships. Later the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists confirmed that anyone within a mile of the explosion would be instantly killed. 

On Jul. 25, 1946, the U.S. conducted the Shot Baker test, which was detonated 90 feet (27 meters) underwater in the NE Lagoon of Bikini Atoll. These two tests were conducted by free fall air drop. 

The shot baker test was the last test conducted in Operation Crossroads, as the entire operation was shut down Aug. 10, 1946 due to radiation concerns. Later on in 1969, President Johnson ordered a long term project to decontaminate Bikini Atoll. The task force responsible for the project was to make the islands inhabitable once again. The clean up efforts stated by the “Report of the Radiological Clean-Up of Bikini Atoll” began with clearing any and all debris from the islands, determination of existing radiation levels on each island, an analysis of available food items for radionuclide distribution, and clearing of vegetation from land for agricultural redevelopment.

In January of 1950, President Truman made the decision to increase U.S. research of thermonuclear weapons, leading further into nuclear testing on the islands. Because of this decision, Operation Greenhouse and Operation Ivy (Conducted a year after Greenhouse began) would be a series of nuclear tests conducted at Enewetak Atoll in 1951, hoping to decrease the weapon size while increasing the power of those same nuclear weapons. These tests would later be useful in creating the hydrogen bomb. 

In November of 1952, The Shot Mike test was the first successful hydrogen bomb test created and launched under Operation Ivy. The “King Shot” test was the last test to be conducted under Operation Ivy on Nov. 16, 1952. The explosion of the “King Shot” yielded nearly half a megaton of TNT. 

During Operation CASTLE, six nuclear weapons were tested, all part of a superbomb. The first test was the Bravo test, conducted on Mar. 1, 1954. What made the Bravo test so successful was the fuel it was run on, which was Lithium Deuteride causing the bomb to yield about 15 megatons, making it the biggest bomb the U.S. had ever exploded. This bomb had exploded more than two and a half times than what scientists had expected.

The nuclear tests conducted during Operation CASTLE were the Bravo test (14.8 megatons), the Romeo test (11.0 megatons), the Koon test (0.10 megatons), the Union test (6.90 megatons), the Yankee test (13.5 megatons), and the Nectar test (1.69 megatons). 

Testing on the Marshall Islands eventually ended in 1958, but a UN report in 2012 stated that the effects of these bombs were long lasting. Today, radiation related cancers and birth defects are a big problem the marshallese still have to face.  

As the years have gone by, there has been no visible damage to the dome that sits on Runit Island in Enewetak Atoll, and no signs of nuclear waste seeping out until early years of the 2010’s. Due to climate change and rising sea levels, the dome has been deemed as ‘extremely vulnerable’ and can crack at any moment. 

The dome is 18 inches thick, but it was not created to last forever. The Runit Dome was built in 1980 to temporarily seal the radioactive fallout while they secured a permanent place for it. However, when the Islands signed a compact of free association with the U.S. in 1983, no plans were able to be further developed as the care of the dome was now left to the island’s government. Ever since then, there has been no word of what will happen to the dome or the radioactive fallout. And as of 2019, cracks have reportedly begun to appear on the dome. 

According to the Guardian, a 2013 report by the Energy Department admitted that radioactive material may have already begun to leak from the dome, but assured that the health risks were low. 

A geological disaster might be in our near future with no plans to fix the dome and the radioactive fallout continuing to seep out. If a typhoon were to hit the islands, the dome would collapse and the radioactive fallout would immediately seep into the ocean. Under the dome, there is approximately 3.1 million cubic feet of radioactive debris, including some of the world’s most toxic substance Plutonium-239, which has a half-life of 24,100 years. 

Ever since 1993, sea levels have risen 0.3 inches every year in the Marshall islands. By the end of the century, scientists estimate that sea levels could rise by four to five feet which would completely submerge the Marshall Islands and the dome that lays with it. 

A timeline of the nuclear testing over the years. (DESTINY RAMOS MARIN/ La Plaza photo)

The U.S. had stayed out of Marshallese business ever since the compact was signed and to this day will not help the islands with the mess the U.S. originally created. The Marshall Islands unfortunately do not have the funds to fulfil the needs and care of the dome and the waste underneath.

The radioactive fallout will continue to lay underneath 18-inches of solid concrete, that is, until it demolishes completely. All citizens around the world can do is hope that the U.S. will come to their senses and help clean up what they started. Until then, the world is at risk of a complete geological disaster. The marshallese and people around the world will continue to live in fear of the day the remains of 67 nuclear bombs come in contact with their oceans.

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