Some things are so serious, all you can do is laugh. ABC News in Australia is reporting rising sea levels are threatening a nuclear waste dump left behind by the United States on Runit Island — part of the Enewetak Atoll. The dump is now leaking radioactive material into the Pacific Ocean, threatening every man, woman, and child living on its edge. That is quite a few folks, if you stop to think about it.
Americans like to brag about the economic miracle the country brought to the world through the globalization of capitalism, but it is fair to say the foundation of American power began on August 6, 1945 when it dropped an atomic bomb blast that vaporized Hiroshima — killing more than 40,000 human beings instantly. Many more would perish in the days, weeks, and months to come.
The ethics of using nuclear weapons on the civilian population of Japan has been the subject of vigorous debate ever since. With the perspective that history provides, many now question the wisdom of Harry Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons, but there is no question that once the awesome power of “The Bomb” became apparent, every other nation on earth wanted one.
Satirist Tom Lehrer made a career out of writing songs filled with biting social commentary. A mathematician by trade, he was an accomplished pianist. At the height of his career, when the protest song was popular, he once described his piano as an “88 string guitar.” One of his songs is called “Who’s Next?” and gives a brief history of the nations who became nuclear powers in the 50s and 60s. (It may interest you to learn that “lehrer” in German means “teacher.”)
In the 1950s, you were considered cool if you knew how to spell Enewetak, the atoll in the Marshall Islands used to test advanced versions of nuclear bombs. Unconcerned about the effects the testing would have on the native people or the land they called home, the US decided both could be sacrificed to obtain a greater good — continued American dominance of nuclear weapons technology.
Following an underground explosion on the tip of Runit Island, the US military brought all the nuclear wastes created by its Pacific testing — during which 42 bombs were exploded — to the crater left behind, dumped them in, and then capped the festering cesspit with a concrete dome two feet thick. Mission accomplished. Everyone go about your business. Nothing to see here, move along.
A half century later, that Pandora’s Box of nuclear horrors is being re-opened, not by humans but by rising sea levels. Global warming is unraveling the tomb once thought to be impregnable, and releasing a toxic stew into the Pacific Ocean. A 2013 study by the US Department of Energy found that the site was leaking its contents into the surrounding water. Another study a year later found traces of the radioactive isotopes buried on Runit Island as far away as the Pearl River Estuary in China’s Guangdong province, according to a report from The Guardian published in July of 2015.
The problem is, the floor of the crater was supposed to be lined with concrete before the toxic waste was dumped in. But the US government decided doing so would be too expensive, so the work was never done. “The bottom of the dome is just what was left behind by the nuclear weapons explosion,” says Michael Gerrard, the chair of Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York. “It’s permeable soil. There was no effort to line it. And therefore, the seawater is inside the dome.” That toxic seawater is then finding its way back into the ocean.
“That dome is the connection between the nuclear age and the climate change age,” says Marshall Islands climate change activist Alson Kelen. “It’ll be a very devastating event if it really leaks. We’re not just talking the Marshall Islands, we’re talking the whole Pacific.”
Jack Niedenthal has been helping the people living on Bikini Atoll — where 23 of the nuclear test explosions were conducted — fight for compensation. In talking about The Dome on Enewetak, he says, “To me, it’s like this big monument to America’s giant fuck up. This could cause some really big problems for the rest of mankind if all that goes underwater, because it’s plutonium and cement.”
According to the ABC News report, some of the debris buried beneath the dome includes plutonium-239. An isotope used in nuclear warheads, it is one of the most toxic substances on earth and has a radioactive half-life of 24,100 years.
There is a lot of talk these days about making America great again but no one seems to be able to articulate exactly when that golden age occurred. Was it when the US could blithely order people to leave their homes so it could blow up the islands they live on? Was it when taking rudimentary precautions to prevent massive contamination from nuclear wastes was deemed too expensive? Some people seem to confuse arrogance with greatness.
Nuclear arms are very much on the mind of Americans these days, as North Korea continues ratcheting up its saber rattling. The other day, the annual Christmas catalog from Hammacher Schlemmer arrived in my mailbox. That reminded me of the ditty penned by one of America’s greatest satirist, Yip Harburg, the fellow who wrote the lyrics for “Over The Rainbow”. Years ago, the department store featured a bomb shelter for its most affluent clients. Harburg couldn’t resist skewering that promotion.
Hammacher Schlemmer is selling a shelter,
worthy of Kubla Khan’s Xanadu dome;
Plushy and swanky, with posh hanky panky
that affluent Yankees can really call home.
Hammacher Schlemmer is selling a shelter,
a push-button palace, fluorescent repose;
Electric devices for facing a crisis
with frozen fruit ices and cinema shows.
Hammacher Schlemmer is selling a shelter
all chromium kitchens and rubber-tiled dorms;
With waterproof portals to echo the chortles
of weatherproof mortals in hydrogen storms.
What a great come-to-glory emporium!
To enjoy a deluxe moratorium,
Where nuclear heat can beguile the elite
in a creme-de-la-creme crematorium.
Perhaps one day, when America is truly great again, Hammacher Schlemmer will offer a similar shelter to protect wealthy humans from an overheated planet and rising seas containing radioactive isotopes. Or maybe that’s what Elon Musk’s proposed colony on Mars is really for.