Rising seas caused by climate change are seeping inside a United States nuclear waste dump on a remote and low-lying Pacific atoll, flushing out radioactive substances left behind from some of the world’s largest atomic weapons tests.
“We call it the tomb,” says Christina Aningi, the head teacher of Enewetak’s only school.
“The children understand that we have a poison in our island.”
It’s “Manit Day” on Enewetak Atoll, a celebration of Marshall Islands culture when the Pacific nation’s troubled past seems a distant memory.
Schoolchildren sit cross-legged on the coral sands as they sing of the islands and atolls, the sunshine and the breeze; “flowers and moonlight, swaying palm trees”.
A schoolgirl holds a sign reading “Happy Manit Day”, a Marshall Islands’ national celebration. (Foreign Correspondent: Greg Nelson)
Kids have grown up on Enewetak but some of their parents can remember returning to the island. (Foreign Correspondent: Greg Nelson)
Locals hope their return to Enewetak will not be short lived, but climate change threatens to change that. (Foreign Correspondent: Greg Nelson)
They were born decades after the last nuclear explosion ripped through the warm Pacific air with a thunderous roar. But it’s hard to escape the long echo of the bombs.
“Gone are the days when we live in fear, fear of the bombs, guns and nuclear,” they sing.
“This is the time … this is my country, this is my land.”
But those old fears, thought to be long buried, are threatening to reawaken in their island paradise.
On an atoll in the far-flung west of the Marshall Islands, halfway between Australia and Hawaii, sits “the dome”.
Approaching from the water, it’s hard to appreciate the true scale of the concrete vault, with its shallow profile obscured by palm trees and scrub.
But from the air it looks like a giant flying saucer has crashed on the tip of a deserted island.
Buried beneath this vast disc is 85,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste — a toxic legacy from the dawning of the thermonuclear age.
In the late 1970s, Runit Island, on the remote Enewetak Atoll, was the scene of the largest nuclear clean-up in United States history.
Highly contaminated debris left over from dozens of atomic weapons tests was dumped into a 100-metre wide bomb crater on the tip of the uninhabited island.
US Army engineers sealed it up with a half-metre thick concrete cap almost the size of an Australian football ground, then left the island.
Now with sea levels rising, water has begun to penetrate the dome.
A report commissioned by the US Department of Energy in 2013 found that radioactive materials were leeching out, threatening the already tenuous existence of Enewetak locals.
“That dome is the connection between the nuclear age and the climate change age,” says Marshall Islands climate change activist Alson Kelen.
“It’ll be a very devastating event if it really leaks. We’re not just talking the Marshall Islands, we’re talking the whole Pacific.”
The dome on Runit Island with a crater left behind by another nuclear test. (Foreign Correspondent: Greg Nelson)
Looking straight down on the dome and its nearby water-filled crater. (Foreign Correspondent: Greg Nelson)
The United States detonated 43 atomic bombs around the island chain in the 1940s and 50s.
Four of Enewetak’s 40 islands were completely vaporised by the tests, with one thermonuclear blast leaving a two-kilometre-wide crater where an island had been just moments before.
Enewetak’s population had been re-located to another island in the Marshalls ahead of the tests.
Marshall Islands climate change activist Alson Kelen, who is worried about the future of the dome. (ABC: Greg Nelson)
“That dome is the connection between the nuclear age and the climate change age.”
Residents would only be allowed to return home more than three decades later — some on the island today can still recall returning to Enewetak as children.
As part of the clean-up process, Washington set aside funds to build the dome as a temporary storage facility, and initial plans included lining the porous bottom of its crater with concrete.
But in the end, that was deemed too expensive.
“The bottom of the dome is just what was left behind by the nuclear weapons explosion,” says Michael Gerrard, the chair of Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York.
“It’s permeable soil. There was no effort to line it. And therefore, the seawater is inside the dome.”
The sun sets in a riot of gold over the Pacific with Enewetak Atoll in the foreground, Marshall Islands, October 2017. (Foreign Correspondent: Greg Nelson)
Locals rarely set foot on Runit Island. They’re fearful of the lingering radiation from the dome and because it’s been ruled off-limits.
To this day, only three islands along Enewetak Atoll’s slender rim are considered safe enough for human habitation.
“[The other islands were] too hot, too radioactive to worry about,” says Giff Johnson, publisher of the Marshall Islands Journal, the country’s only newspaper.
“There was no point [cleaning them up].”
After the fall-out from the atomic testing, life for the people of Enewetak went from a traditional existence of fishing and subsistence living to one where the waters that once supported their livelihoods were now polluted.
Two girls smile for the camera on Enewetak. Across the atoll’s blue lagoon, a few hours by boat, lies the dome. (Foreign Correspondent: Greg Nelson)
On the main island, where most of the atoll’s few hundred people now live, concerns about the radioactive contamination of the food chain has seen a shift away from a traditional diet of fish and coconut.
The US Department of Energy has even banned exports of fish and copra from Enewetak because of the ongoing contamination.
The vast bulk of foodstuffs are now brought into the island by barge, and that means islanders are reliant on imported canned and processed goods like Spam that have triggered health problems such as diabetes.
The shelves of Enewetak’s only store are largely filled with American brand chocolate bars, lollies and potato chips.
A rusty hulk offshore from a green, palm tree-clad island. (Foreign Correspondent: Greg Nelson)
US Army equipment is a reminder of Enewetak’s nuclear past. (Foreign Correspondent: Greg Nelson)
Locals sometimes visit Runit to scavenge from scrap copper left behind by the Americans, selling it for a few dollars to a Chinese merchant.
For 30 years, Jack Niedenthal has helped the people of neighbouring Bikini Atoll fight for compensation for the 23 atomic tests conducted there.
“To me, it’s like this big monument to America’s giant f–k up,” says Niedenthal.
“This could cause some really big problems for the rest of mankind if all that goes underwater, because it’s plutonium and cement.”
Some of the debris buried beneath the dome includes plutonium-239, a fissile isotope used in nuclear warheads which is one of the most toxic substances on earth.
It has a radioactive half-life of 24,100 years.
From the top of the dome, the view is dominated by ocean — the rolling waves of the Pacific to the east, the calm azure surface of the atoll lagoon to the west.
A deep bomb crater from another atomic test is carved into the coral just a few metres away.
Despite Runit Island being officially off-limits, the dome lies unmarked and unguarded.
Its position on the very edge of the shoreline reinforces just how vulnerable and exposed this nuclear waste dump is.
“We call it the tomb. The children understand that we have a poison in our island.”
Cracks are visible in the dome’s surface and brackish liquid pools around its rim.
“Already the sea sometimes washes over [the dome] in a large storm,” says Columbia University’s Michael Gerrard.
“The United States Government has acknowledged that a major typhoon could break it apart and cause all of the radiation in it to disperse.”
While Professor Gerrard would like the US to reinforce the dome, a 2014 US Government report says a catastrophic failure of the structure would not necessarily lead to a change in the contamination levels in the waters surrounding it.
A new generation faces an uncertain future on the island. (Foreign Correspondent: Greg Nelson)
“I’m persuaded that the radiation outside the dome is as bad as the radiation inside the dome,” says Professor Gerrard.
“And therefore, it is a tragic irony that the US Government may be right, that if this material were to be released that the already bad state of the environment around there wouldn’t get that much worse.”
But that is cold comfort to the people of Enewetak, who fear they may have to be relocated once again if the dome collapses or crumbles.
“If it does [crack] open most of the people here will be no more,” says Ms Aningi.
“This is like a graveyard for us, waiting for it to happen.”
Sunset on the beach on Enewetak Atoll, Marshall Islands, October 2017. (Foreign Correspondent: Greg Nelson)
- Reporter: Mark Willacy
- Drone footage and photography: Greg Nelson
- Editor: Tim Leslie
- Producer: Matthew Henry
- Video producers: Johanna McDiarmid and Susan Kim