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UN chief warns nuclear ‘coffin’ may be leaking radioactive material into Pacific Ocean

Picture taken by the U.S. Defense Nuclear Agency in 1980, shows the huge dome, which has just been completed over top of a crater left by one of the 43 nuclear blasts on the island, expected to last 25,000 years, capping off radioactive debris from nuclear tests over Runit Island in Enewetak in the Marshall Islands. .
Picture taken by the U.S. Defense Nuclear Agency in 1980, shows the huge dome, which has just been completed over top of a crater left by one of the 43 nuclear blasts on the island, expected to last 25,000 years, capping off radioactive debris from nuclear tests over Runit Island in Enewetak in the Marshall Islands. . AFP/Getty Images

A concrete dome built on an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean to house waste from atomic bomb tests could be leaking radioactive material into the ocean, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned.

Guterres said there is a growing concern that the structure on the Enewetak atoll in the Marshall Islands – which he described as “a kind of coffin” – is developing significant cracks in the concrete after decades of exposure and could break apart if hit by a tropical storm.

“The consequences of these have been quite dramatic, in relation to health, in relation to the poisoning of waters in some areas,” Guterres said, speaking in Fiji last week, Agence France-Presse reported. “I’ve just been with the president of the Marshall Islands, 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.”

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The Marshall Islands, a chain of islands and atolls located between Hawaii and Papua New Guinea, was home to a series of nuclear weapons tests from 1946-58 carried out by the U.S. and France.

One of the tests included the 1954 “Castle Bravo” hydrogen bomb, the most powerful ever detonated by the U.S., and roughly 1,000 times bigger than the “Little Boy” atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

In this July 25, 1946, file photo, a huge mushroom cloud rises above Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands following an atomic test blast, part of the U.S. military’s “Operation Crossroads.”
In this July 25, 1946, file photo, a huge mushroom cloud rises above Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands following an atomic test blast, part of the U.S. military’s “Operation Crossroads.” (AP Photo, File)

The explosion was more than two-and-a-half times greater than expected and caused far higher levels of fallout than scientists had predicted, covering nearby inhabited islands in radioactive debris.

“Approximately five hours after the detonation, it began to rain radioactive fallout at Rongelap,” Jeton Anjain, minister of health and senator in the Marshallese parliament, later testified. “Within hours, the atoll was covered with a fine, white, powder-like substance. No one knew it was radioactive fallout. The children played in the ‘snow.’ They ate it.”

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Built in the late 1970s, the concrete dome was designed as a temporary solution to house the radioactive soil and ash.

Guterres is currently touring the South Pacific to raise awareness about the effects of climate-change issues and said more needs to be done to help the area deal with the legacy of nuclear testing.

“The Pacific was victimized in the past as we all know,” he said. “A lot needs to be done in relation to the explosions that took place in French Polynesia and the Marshall Islands.”

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