Fri. Oct 18th, 2019

Ten Chernobyls on a Pacific Island

Representational Image

By Pitamber Kaushik
Between the end of the Second World War and 1958, Marshall Islands’ atolls were the United States’ go-to nuclear testing field. The first-ever test called Able was conducted in 1946 on Bikini Atoll, in which the bomb  was dropped from a B-29 Superfortress and detonated mid-air, a mere 158 m above the target fleet.
The second test nicknamed Baker detonated 90 m underwater a few weeks later. The radioactive contamination was immense, the seaspray conveying it to the land. The great chemist Glenn T. Seaborg, the longest-serving chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, called it “the world’s first nuclear disaster”.

The maiden American Thermonuclear (Hydrogen) bomb code named Ivy Mike, was tested on Enewetak in 1951. Later in the 50’s, a series of H-Bomb tests rendered Bikini infertile for subsistence farming and fishing, owing to the radioactive contamination. The 1954 Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb was a thousandfold more powerful than the fission-based nuclear bomb that decimated the city of Hiroshima in 1945. Its fallout contaminated the Rongelap and Utirik atolls as well, which lay in its vicinity.

In a span of twelve years, the US conducted testings of 67 nuclear bombs on the two Atolls, the craters in whose wake are visible from space. However the real toll of the disaster is much less conspicuous.

A 2015 study discovered that concentrations of the radioactive isotopes plutonium-239 and -240 in the soil of Bikini and Enewetak were nearly ten times those of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, the site of a 1984 reactor meltdown, minor explosion and partial fuel ejection, one of the most-discussed disasters in the world and the subject of a recent chart-buster HBO miniseries.

More alarmingly, levels of gamma radiation, a highly penetrative, ionizing form of emission were found to have sizeably increased from their previously recorded value. Certain sites still exceed the safe-deemed value for radiation exposure.

A dilapidated containment dome – 20 inches thick, 100 meters wide and confining 85,000 cubic meters of radioactive junk, materialized in 1977 as part of an American cleaning undertaking, is perched upon permeable rocks on Runit island, one of the several islets constituting the Enewetak atoll, through which radioactive water leakage was noted in 2013.

As this was considered a makeshift solution, the bottom of the dome wasn’t lined with impervious materials, so as to prevent seepage of the waste into the underlying aquifers. But as the Marshall Islands assented to a secession from the United States in 1983, the latter considers itself freed of any responsibility or obligations to its past actions or their ramifications and repercussions. Sea-level rise and storms threaten flooding, landing the whole area in jeopardy of an expansive radioactive contamination.

Pitamber Kaushik is an Indian columnist, journalist, researcher and writer.