Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fears Marshall Island atomic waste leaking

ABC PM - Monday, 18 August , 2008 18:42:00
Reporter: Mark Colvin
MARK COLVIN: Time and distance have allowed the world to forget, for the most part, what happened in the Bikini and Eniwetok atolls in the Marshall Islands far to Australia's north-east in the 1940s and 50s.

Everyone knows the name "bikini" as a swimsuit, but there's little memory of the 23 atomic bomb tests the United States carried out at Bikini, which sent the islanders into permanent exile. At the Eniwetok atoll, despite 43 bomb tests, people started returning in the 70s.

In an attempt to protect them, the Americans gathered up the irradiated waste from the different islands, mixed it with concrete and buried it in one of the bomb craters. Now there are claims that that storage area may be leaking.

They come in an article by Hong Kong freelancer Ivan Broadhead, who went to Eniwetok for the South China Morning Post and wrote an article about the nuclear fears for the Fairfax papers.

IVAN BROADHEAD: The dome is an enormous structure. If you can imagine a headland on a beautiful atoll in the Pacific Ocean with what essential looks like a UFO or a spaceship just planted on the end of it. It's made of concrete and it's at least 30 feet high and inside lie about around about three million cubic feet of radioactive waste.

MARK COLVIN: And you say it's enormous. I mean, is it a couple of football fields across?

IVAN BROADHEAD: It's, you're standing on the top of it, and put it like this, you can see the Pacific Ocean, a lot of it, and you can see a beautiful lagoon that the atolls encircled. The dome is built in a nuclear crater, one of the eight bomb blasts that took place on Runit Island, was, well the cactus, the cactus bomb, now that blew an enormous hole in the reef and the Americans decided that what they would do in the 1970s was collect up all the radioactive waste that was scattered around Eniwetok atoll and since we'd buried it in this bomb crater that was left from the 1950s.

MARK COLVIN: So they'd created a hole, they filled in with the nuclear waste, and then they plugged it over with this big concrete ceiling?

IVAN BROADHEAD: The crater itself wasn't sufficient, wasn't adequate to take all the waste, and so they kept towering it, building it up, and eventually towered 30 feet high and they sealed with a concrete cap, which is the dome that remains visible to this day.

MARK COLVIN: But you say that there is a problem with the concrete cap.

IVAN BROADHEAD: There's a rather grave problem. Now you have to bear in mind that inside the dome lies, in millions of cubic feet of radioactive waste. Now, in the context that is was only built in 1979, there is absolutely no way that the dome is going to survive if indeed, as rumour suggested, there were cracks in the structure. And part of my investigation involves going up to the island and to checking essentially on whether or not these cracks actually existed.

MARK COLVIN: And did they

IVAN BROADHEAD: The cracks do exist, Mark. The United States Department of Energy, which was involved in building the dome, said that there were only hair-like cracks. Now, that comment is based on the report that they did 18 years ago, which was the last time the sent an engineer to visit the dome. And then after our visit, it turns out that the DOE was actually sending out another engineer for the first visit in 18 years, as I said, who's to go and have an inspection. I've been in touch with the DOE since then, and they insist that the cracks remain hair-line.

MARK COLVIN: But what did you see with your eyes? How big are these cracks?

IVAN BROADHEAD: I would, if I could give you an illustration for instance, I can put my, I can clearly put my index finger within some of the cracks. There are spores or chips, I think engineers use the word "spores", there are chips in the structure itself which are deep enough for the bird population of the island to lay eggs in.

MARK COLVIN: That leads us to the question of what affect it's having on the wildlife, on the water, on the air, what are the radiation tests showing?

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