The ghosts of Cold War nuclear testing keep coming back to haunt us. Who knows what long-term damage we may have already inadvertently caused? It would be naive to think that today’s science could predict everything that could happen tomorrow, particularly with such a relatively new development as nuclear weapons testing. Have we irrevocably harmed the planet or the human race without knowing it?
While that remains unknown, there are already signs that we may have done more damage than we know by testing nuclear weapons throughout the 1950s. The United States conducted 23 separate tests on the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, tests which in some cases were far more powerful than expected and resulted in the forced relocation of native islanders due to nuclear fallout.
In 1977, nearly 20 years after nuclear bombs were tested, the Defense Nuclear Agency began to clean up the nuclear debris left over on the atolls of the Marshall Islands. On Enewetak Atoll, U.S. authorities created a giant concrete ‘coffin’ to contain soil and debris contaminated from nuclear testing. For over 40 years, this coffin has encased the nuclear fallout left behind by these weapons. What could go wrong, you ask?
It turns out this coffin serves as a symbol of two of mankind’s greatest follies: nuclear weapons and climate change. Due to rising sea levels at the atoll, the nuclear coffin is beginning to crack open. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres recently toured the atoll to witness the effects of climate change firsthand and was shocked by the condition of the radioactive coffin:
The Pacific was victimised in the past as we all know. The consequences of [nuclear tests] have been quite dramatic, in relation to health, in relation to the poisoning of waters in some areas. I've just been with the President of the Marshall Islands, who is very worried because there is a risk of leaking of radioactive materials that are contained in a kind of coffin in the area.
Of chief concern is the coffin’s high amount of plutonium-239, one of the world’s most toxic isotopes which features a radioactive half-life of 24,100 years. If radioactive material seeped out into the ocean, that plutonium-239 could wreak havoc on ecosystems worldwide.
In the past, evidence of Cold War nuclear mishaps have been swept under the rug by governments looking to avoid blame. In the case of Enewetak Atoll, the Marshallese government lacks the funding and expertise to repair the coffin. Will the U.S. government own up for its mistakes and cough up the dough to fix it?