The year was 1978 and few other news correspondents had made their way to Enewetak atoll in the Marshall Islands. While I was happy to be a pioneer on behalf of readers of my paper, the Baltimore Sun, the story I found there was truly sad – and not a little bit weird.

US Cold War-era nuclear tests, between 1946 and 1958, had forced the evacuation of the atoll’s population and contaminated the soil. Little or nothing had been done for two decades. Finally, though, a US army engineers’ unit had been dispatched to dig up the soil, remove and store the contaminants and prepare the islands for residents to return.

In the baking heat of the virtually treeless atoll, I saw GIs breathing through respirators and clomping around in hazmat suits. Cheering on their efforts from afar were Enewetak people, temporarily housed on another atoll while awaiting the work’s completion. The gung-ho colonel in charge of the restoration job had done wartime duty in Vietnam and he found it natural to refer to islanders’ residences as “hooches.” He did not, however, call the refugees “gooks,” at least in my hearing.

The people did return, starting in 1980 – hundreds of them – but the story hasn’t gone away, and it’s no happier, no less weird.

‘A kind of coffin’

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has highlighted concerns that a concrete dome the soldiers finished building that year to contain atomic waste is leaking radioactive material into the Pacific. Speaking to students in Fiji last week, Guterres described the structure on Enewetak’s Runit island as “a kind of coffin” and said it was a legacy of Cold War-era nuclear tests.

“The Pacific was victimized in the past, as we all know,” he said, referring to nuclear explosions carried out by the United States and France in the region.

In the Marshalls, numerous islanders were forcibly resettled, while thousands more were exposed to radioactive fallout. The Marshalls were ground zero for 67 American nuclear weapons tests from 1946-58 at Bikini and Enewetak atolls, when the territory was under US administration. The tests included the 1954 “Bravo” hydrogen bomb, the most powerful ever detonated by the United States, about 1,000 times bigger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Guterres, touring the South Pacific to raise awareness of climate change issues, said Pacific Islanders still need help to deal with the fallout of the nuclear testing. “The consequences of these have been quite dramatic, in relation to health, in relation to the poisoning of waters in some areas,” he said. “I’ve just been with the President of the Marshall Islands [Hilda Heine], 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.”

Health consequences, compensation

The “coffin” is a concrete dome, built as a dumping ground for waste from the nuclear tests. Radioactive soil and ash from the explosions was tipped into a crater and capped with a concrete dome 45 centimeters thick. However, it was only envisaged as a temporary fix and the bottom of the crater was never lined, leading to fears the waste is leaching into the Pacific. Cracks have also developed in the concrete after decades of exposure and there are concerns it could break apart if hit by a tropical cyclone.

Guterres did not specify what he thought should be done with the dome but said the Pacific’s nuclear history still needed to be addressed. “A lot needs to be done in relation to the explosions that took place in French Polynesia and the Marshall Islands,” he said. “This is in relation to the health consequences, the impact on communities and other aspects. Of course, there are questions of compensation and mechanisms to allow these impacts to be minimized.”

Health consequences threaten not only locals but, after all these decades, survivors among the 4,000 soldiers who did all the digging and hauling of radioactive waste. According to a 2017 New York Times story, the hazmat suits and respirators I saw were only for show. When there was no reporter watching, ex-soldiers are quoted as saying, they did their work shirtless, in cutoff shorts and floppy sun hats. They didn’t even have paper dust-masks. Many have developed cancer.

These days the Marshalls and other island countries find themselves courted by larger countries seeking strategic advantage in the Pacific, notably China and Taiwan. A new report from the National Bureau of Asian Research says that “Taiwan’s struggle to maintain formal diplomatic relations with these states dovetails with the United States’ reformulated Indo-Pacific strategy, even if Washington has yet to articulate a clear plan for coordinating activities in the South Pacific with Taipei.”

Welcome as such attention may be to the Marshalls, it hardly comes close to making up for the one-two punch of 20th century nuclear testing followed by 21st century climate change that threatens to leave the atolls – including the”coffin” dome – under water.

– With additional reporting by AFP –