We recently received a reader inquiry about reporting on the exposures and atomic cleanup at Enewetak Atoll. As a result, we’ve compiled the following basic information. We will continue to edit and build upon it over time as we continue to research the issue.
I’m writing about the failed 1977-1980 Atomic Cleanup of Enewetak Atoll. It was a joint Task Force Mission which included civilians like myself. We were exposed to deadly levels of ionizing radiation with any protective gear. Today after 9 years of searching, including our story on the front page of the New York Times and front cover of the American Legion Magazine, we have found only about 500 survivors of the 8,000 men that participated. As a civilian I lived, ate, worked, played and received radiation poisoning. I even wore the same uniform, a T-shirt and a pair of shorts, and I used my T-shirt like most everyone else as a dust mask and towel.
The following is background information on Enewetak, as well as links to stories and advocacy groups for those exposed.
Enewetak is a large coral atoll of 40 islands in the Pacific Ocean and with its 850 people forms a legislative district of the Ralik Chain of the Marshall Islands. Its land area totals less than 5.85 square kilometres (2.26 sq mi), not higher than 5 metres and surrounding a deep central lagoon, 80 kilometres (50 mi) in circumference. It is the second-westernmost atoll of the Ralik Chain and is 305 kilometres (190 mi) west from Bikini Atoll. A total of 67 nuclear and atmospheric bombs were detonated on Enewetak and Bikini between 1946 and 1958. To put this in perspective, you would have to detonate 1.6 Hiroshima bombs every day for 12 years to match the explosive yield derived from these tests. The radioactivity left behind is palpable. According to a NY Times article from 2014:
Bikini was so radioactive that there was little hope of allowing its displaced population ever to return home. But the military studied how to clean up Enewetak so that at least some land could become habitable again. The Defense Department concluded that there was so much soil contaminated with cesium-137 and strontium-90 that the safest approach was to leave it alone and let it decay naturally. Both have half-lives of about 30 years.
Two decades after testing, the military sent in about 4,000 troops to decontaminate the islands, mixing radioactive soil and debris with cement, creating a radioactive slurry that was then dumped into a crater left by one of the bombs and covered by a concrete dome.
In addition to the contaminated soil, crews filled 437 plastic bags with plutonium chunks they had picked up from the ground, left behind when one bomb misfired. These also went into the crater, which was then covered with an 18-inch-thick concrete cap. Most of the rest of the radioactive waste, with too little plutonium to trouble with, was bulldozed into the lagoon, over the objections of the Environmental Protection Agency and the displaced people of Enewetak. American officials also chose to leave radiation on the land at levels far higher than would be allowed after a similar cleanup in the United States.
Defense Nuclear Agency video regarding Enewetak Atoll Cleanup Planning from 1976
A radiological survey of Enewetak was conducted in from 1972 to 1973. The plan was as follows:
The final plan called for (1) removing all radioactive and non-radioactive debris (equipment, concrete, scrap metal, etc.), (2) removing all soil that exceeded 14.8 Bq (400 pCi) of plutonium per gram of soil, (3) removing or amending soil between 1.48 and 14.8 Bq (40 and 400 pCi) of plutonium per gram of soil, determined on a case-by-case basis depending on ultimate land-use, and 4) disposing and stabilizing all this accumulated radioactive waste into a crater on Runit Island and capping it with a concrete dome. Approximately 4,000 U.S. servicemen assisted in the cleanup operations, with 6 lives lost in accidents, in what became known as the Enewetak Radiological Support Project (DOE, 1982). A estimated total of 73,000 cubic meters of surface soil across 6 different islands on Enewetak Atoll was recovered by scapping and deposited in Cactus crater on Runit Island. – https://marshallislands.llnl.gov/enewetak.php
In 1977, the United States military began decontamination of Enewetak and other islands. During the three-year, $100 million cleanup process, the military mixed more than 111,000 cubic yards (85,000 m3) of contaminated soil and debris from the islands with Portland cement and buried it in an atomic blast crater on the northern end of the atoll’s Runit Island… The final cost of the cleanup project was $239 million. The United States government declared the southern and western islands in the atoll safe for habitation in 1980, and residents of Enewetak returned that same year. The issue at hand today is whether or not US cleanup crews involved at Enewetak deserve additional care from the government as a result of their exposure. Those exposed during nuclear testing at Enewetak and Bikini, known as ‘atomic veterans’, receive extra health care benefits from the government for a variety of concerns and cancers. However, the government maintains that cleanup crews that came afterwards were not exposed to dangerous radiation. As a result, the government continues to deny additional health coverage for surviving members of these cleanup crews. Legislative efforts to reclassify US cleanup crews as atomic veterans would subsequently open the door to VA benefits. Those efforts remain stalled. In addition to its historical threat to human health, Enewetak may now be due for even more cleanup. In a disturbing and revealing article from the Guardian in 2015, Runit Dome is now leaking:
Brackish water pools around the edge of the dome, where sections of concrete have started to crack away. Underground, radioactive waste has already started to leach out of the crater: according to a 2013 report by the US Department of Energy, soil around the dome is already more contaminated than its contents. Now locals, scientists and environmental activists fear that a storm surge, typhoon or other cataclysmic event brought on by climate change could tear the concrete mantel wide open, releasing its contents into the Pacific Ocean.
What is unclear, however, is who will pay for it. According to the same Guardian article, in 1983:
The Marshall Islands signed a compact of free association with the US, granting its people certain privileges, but not full citizenship. The deal also settled of “all claims, past, present and future” related to the US Nuclear Testing Program – and left the Runit Dome under the responsibility of the Marshallese government. Today, the US government insists that it has honored all its obligations, and that the jurisdiction for the dome and its toxic contents lies with the Marshall Islands. The Marshallese, meanwhile, say that a country with a population of 53,000 people and a GDP of $190m – most of it from US aid programs – is simply incapable of dealing with the potential radioactive catastrophe left behind by the Americans.
Were you exposed at Enewetak? Share your story with us and we’ll feature it in our new series – “Contamination Chronicles: Personal Stories of Exposure”. If you would like to submit your story, you may fill out our form here or send directly via email to [email protected]
- Atomic Cleanup Vets Advocacy Group
- Marshall Islands Info Page – Enewetak
- Editorial: An Atomic Clean Up Had Been Turned Into An Atomic Cover Up
Recent News Articles:
- Vets Who Cleaned Up Nuclear Test Sites Seek Extra Health Benefits
- NY Times: A Pacific Isle, Radioactive and Forgotten
- The Gaurdian: This Dome in the Pacific Houses Tons of Radioactive Waste – And It’s Leaking
- The Crazy Story of the 1946 Bikini Atoll Nuclear Tests