By Graham Earnshaw
MAJURO, Marshall Islands, Aug 19, Reuter – Politicians in this remote part of the northern Pacific are debating whether to offer one of their radiation-contaminated islands as a dumping ground for nuclear waste.
The United States exploded dozens of test atomic bombs on two atolls in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958. Some of the islands still have high radioactive levels.
Some politicians and residents believe the idea should be examined. If deemed safe, there would be a lot of money to be made by offering their islands as a commercial dumping ground for waste from nuclear power stations.
There are also other countries potentially interested in buying space in such a nuclear waste dump, particularly Japan, which in the late 1970s proposed dumping nuclear waste in the north Marianas to the northwest of the Marshalls.
Marshall Islands President Amata Kabua last December had his country’s name added to a bill before the U.S. Congress as a possible site for U.S. nuclear waste disposal.
Nevada, site of many atomic tests and large gambling casinos, is currently the most likely site for such storage.
Secretary for Foreign Affairs Jibe Kabua, son of the president, said the intention was to first conduct a feasibility study on whether the islands would be suitable and safe for nuclear waste.
“That would be the basis for deciding whether or not to commit ourselves,” he said. “Everyone assumes we are going straight into dumping. That is not so.”
“Money is not the prime consideration,” he added. “Money of course is a factor, but the prime consideration is to help out in determining whether it is actually safe to use such isolated islands as ours as repositories.”
Former Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony deBrum said he believed the idea of turning the liability of the radio-active islands to a commercial advantage ws ridiculous.
“It’s just a sad story. First you get nuked, then you turn round and offer to store nuclear waste. It’s crazy,” he said. “It is one thing to do something out of ignorance and fear, but to do it again for money would be inexcusable.”
DeBrum said the people from affected atolls — Bikini and Eniwetok — were amongst the most enthusiastic about the idea.
“They see a lot of advantages in having a lot of cash. They see an opportunity to turn a bad situation into an advantage and to hell with the rest of the islands,” he said.
John Haglelgam, president of the Federated States of Micronesia to the west of the Marshall Islands, said his government, like most others in the Pacific, was opposed to nuclear waste dumping.
“We hope it won’t materialise because the livelihood of the small islands out here depends on the ocean,” he told Reuters.
“When you put nuclear waste in the ocean, the potential for contamination is very great. Maybe not in our lifetime, but in the future,” he added.
Eniwetok atoll, where the U.S. exploded 43 atomic bombs, is already the site of one of the biggest radio-active dumps in the world.
The radiation levels in the soil on the main island were so high that the U.S. had the whole surface scraped off, all the radio-active soil mixed with concrete, dumped on a nearby island and sealed in a concrete bunker.
The job took 1,000 people to complete between 1977 and 1980. But is it safe?
“I’ve seen 100-year-old concrete starting to go bad. The radioactive half-life of plutonium is 25,000 years,” said one of the engineers who worked on the Eniwetok project. “The answer is that something will obviously happen eventually if it is left alone.”
But the engineer said the Eniwetok dump was not dangerous if watched, adding, “There is a responsibility to continue to maintain that storage area.”
Marshall Islands Finance Minister Henchi Balos is one of the Bikini people still exiled from their island due to unacceptably high radiation levels in the soil and plants there 30 years after the nuclear tests stopped.
He said he believed that if a study showed that such nuclear waste disposal would be safe and leak-proof, “it is maybe likely that the people would consider it favourably.”
But he added that he personally opposed the whole idea.
“What is the use of receiving millions of dollars if you die later as a result of what has been placed in your area?” he said. “Personally, I would prefer to be poor and live rather than rich and sick.” REUTER GAE JWT NNNN