America buried nuclear waste abroad. Climate change may reveal this

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This story is basically Appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Ariana Tibon was She was in college at the University of Hawaii in 2017 when she saw an image online: a black-and-white photo of a man holding a baby. The caption states: “Nelson Anjain watches over his child by a member of the AEC Radsafe team at Rongelap on March 2, 1954, two days after Bravo.”

Tibon had never seen the man before. But he recognized the name as that of his great grandfather. At the time, he was living on Rongelap in the Marshall Islands when the US conducted Castle Bravo, the largest of the 67 nuclear weapons tests there during the Cold War. The experiments displaced and sickened indigenous people, poisoned fish, overturned traditional food practices, and caused cancer and other negative health consequences that continue to this day.

A federal report from the Government Accountability Office published last month examines what's left of that nuclear pollution 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. “Sea level rise could spread pollution into the RMI and conflicting risk assessments may lead residents to distrust radiological information from the U.S. Department of Energy,” the report said.

In Greenland, chemical pollution and radioactive liquid left over from a nuclear power plant are frozen in sheets of ice at a U.S. military research base where scientists studied the potential for launching nuclear missiles. The report does not specify how or where nuclear contamination might move in the Pacific or Greenland, or what if any health risks might arise for people living nearby. However, the authors note that in Greenland, frozen waste could be exposed by 2100.

“There is the potential to impact the environment, which could further impact the food chain and also impact the people living in the area,” said Hjalmar Dahl, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council Greenland. About 90 percent of the country is Inuit. “I think it is important that the Greenland and US governments communicate on this worrying issue and prepare what to do about it.”

The authors of the GAO study wrote that Greenland and Denmark have not proposed any cleanup plans, but also cited studies that say most of the nuclear waste has already decayed and will be diluted by melting ice. However, those studies suggest that chemical wastes such as polychlorinated biphenyls, man-made chemicals known as PCBs that are carcinogens, “may be the most consequential wastes at Camp Sanctuary.”

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

Nathan Anderson, director of the Government Accountability Office, said the United States' responsibilities in the Marshall Islands are “defined by specific federal statutes and international agreements.” He said the government of the Marshall Islands had previously agreed to settle claims related to damage caused by US nuclear testing.

“It is the long-standing position of the U.S. Government that, in accordance with that agreement, the Republic of the Marshall Islands takes full responsibility for its lands, including lands used for the nuclear testing program.”

To Tibon, who is back home in the Marshall Islands and currently chairs the National Nuclear Commission, the fact that the report's only recommendation is a new communications strategy is mystifying. He's not sure how this will help the Marshallese people.

“Now we need action and implementation on environmental remediation. We don't need any communication strategy,'' she said. “If they knew it was contaminated, why weren't next steps recommended on environmental remediation, or what is possible to return these lands to safe and livable conditions for these communities?”

The Biden administration recently agreed to fund a new museum commemorating those affected by nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands as well as a climate change initiative, but the initiative has repeatedly failed to garner support from Congress. Even if they are part of an ongoing treaty. A comprehensive national security effort to enhance goodwill in the Pacific to counter the Marshall Islands and China.