The US Buried Nuclear Waste Abroad. Climate Change Could Unearth It

This story originally appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Ariana Tibon was in college at the University of Hawaii in 2017 when she saw the photo online: a black-and-white picture of a man holding a baby. The caption said: “Nelson Anjain getting his baby monitored on March 2, 1954, by an AEC RadSafe team member on Rongelap two days after ʻBravo.’”

Tibon had never seen the man before. But she recognized the name as her great-grandfather’s. At the time, he was living on Rongelap in the Marshall Islands when the US conducted Castle Bravo, the largest of 67 nuclear weapon tests there during the Cold War. The tests displaced and sickened Indigenous people, poisoned fish, upended traditional food practices, and caused cancers and other negative health repercussions that continue to reverberate today.

A federal report by the Government Accountability Office published last month examines what’s left of that nuclear contamination, not only in the Pacific but also in Greenland and Spain. The authors conclude that climate change could disturb nuclear waste left in Greenland and the Marshall Islands. “Rising sea levels could spread contamination in RMI, and conflicting risk assessments cause residents to distrust radiological information from the US Department of Energy,” the report says.

In Greenland, chemical pollution and radioactive liquid are frozen in ice sheets, left over from a nuclear power plant on a US military research base where scientists studied the potential to install nuclear missiles. The report didn’t specify how or where nuclear contamination could migrate in the Pacific or Greenland, or what if any health risks that might pose to people living nearby. However, the authors did note that in Greenland, frozen waste could be exposed by 2100.

“The possibility to influence the environment is there, which could further affect the food chain and further affect the people living in the area as well,” said Hjalmar Dahl, president of Inuit Circumpolar Council Greenland. The country is about 90 percent Inuit. “I think it is important that the Greenland and US governments have to communicate on this worrying issue and prepare what to do about it.”

The authors of the GAO study wrote that Greenland and Denmark haven’t proposed any cleanup plans, but also cited studies that say much of the nuclear waste has already decayed and will be diluted by melting ice. However, those studies do note that chemical waste such as polychlorinated biphenyls, man-made chemicals better known as PCBs that are carcinogenic, “may be the most consequential waste at Camp Century.”

The report summarizes disagreements between Marshall Islands officials and the US Department of Energy regarding the risks posed by US nuclear waste. The GAO recommends that the agency adopt a communications strategy for conveying information about the potential for pollution to the Marshallese people.

Nathan Anderson, a director at the Government Accountability Office, said that the United States’ responsibilities in the Marshall Islands “are defined by specific federal statutes and international agreements.” He noted that the government of the Marshall Islands previously agreed to settle claims related to damages from US nuclear testing.

“It is the long-standing position of the US government that, pursuant to that agreement, the Republic of the Marshall Islands bears full responsibility for its lands, including those used for the nuclear testing program.”

To Tibon, who is back home in the Marshall Islands and is currently chair of the National Nuclear Commission, the fact that the report’s only recommendation is a new communications strategy is mystifying. She’s not sure how that would help the Marshallese people.

“What we need now is action and implementation on environmental remediation. We don’t need a communication strategy,” she said. “If they know that it’s contaminated, why wasn’t the recommendation for next steps on environmental remediation, or what’s possible to return these lands to safe and habitable conditions for these communities?”

The Biden administration recently agreed to fund a new museum to commemorate those affected by nuclear testing as well as climate change initiatives in the Marshall Islands, but the initiatives have repeatedly failed to garner support from Congress, even though they’re part of an ongoing treaty with the Marshall Islands and a broader national security effort to shore up goodwill in the Pacific to counter China.