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US says leaking nuclear waste dome is safe; Marshall Islands leaders don't believe it

Susanne Rust, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

In response to a directive from Congress, the Department of Energy released a report this week assessing the risks of a 50-year-old cracking and crumbling concrete nuclear waste repository in the Marshall Islands, but the findings did little to ease the concerns of Marshallese leaders in the Central Pacific.

The DOE report found that Runit Dome, a repository for atomic waste the United States produced during Cold War weapons testing, is sound and that radioactive leakage into the nearby lagoon is not significant.

After Congress grew concerned last year about the leaking dome, it ordered the Department of Energy to produce a report on the dome's structural integrity amid climate change and rising sea levels.

The report noted that while sea level rise could increase storm surge, swells, and "lead to wave-induced over-wash of lower sections of the dome," there is not enough definitive data to determine "how these events might impact on the environment."

One Marshallese leader was disappointed the Department of Energy again downplayed the risks and declined to take responsibility for Runit Dome and its leaking contents.

"We don't expect the Enewetak community to feel any safer based on this report as it doesn't contain any new information from what they've seen ... and don't trust," said Rhea Christian-Moss, the chairperson of the Marshall Islands' National Nuclear Commission, a government-operated nuclear waste and radiation oversight panel.


"The report offers nothing new and is more or less what we expected to see," she said, lamenting the Senate's redaction of a critical line in the House's mandate, which stipulated that the Department of Energy provide a plan detailing the removal of the radioactive waste into a "safer and more stable location."

The Department of Energy report is signed by Dan Brouillette, the agency's secretary.

Terry Hamilton, the department's lead contractor on the project, said the report shows that "under the hard facts of radiation science, existing data and information show that the risks posed by Runit Dome are unlikely to impact on the health status of the people" living near the dome.

In November last year, the Los Angeles Times published an investigation of the lingering radiation legacy in the Marshall Islands, and the refusal of U.S. authorities to take ownership for the hazards posed by Runit Dome.


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