The US has been leaving nuclear waste around the world, now that climate change could expose it

During the Cold War, when tampering with nuclear energy was all the rage, the US military left behind a legacy of radioactive debris in various places around the world. Much of the impact was kept at bay or contained – well, depending on who you ask – but climate change now threatens to reawaken this radioactive bogeyman.

A new report from the US Government Accountability Office has highlighted three regions around the world where US-induced radioactive contamination could be disrupted by climate change.

Despite being the result of American actions, none of the three troublesome locations are located in the US; they can be found in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, the Spanish town of Palomares and the site of a former Arctic military scientific research base in Greenland.

In light of this dramatic environmental shift, the report argues that the US may need to rethink how it manages some of these sites.

Nuclear waste on ice

Between 1959 and 1967, the US military ran a scientific research base in Greenland called Camp Century. It was home to Project Iceworm, a supervillainous plan to install a network of nuclear missile launch sites hidden amid the Arctic ice cap. They also investigated the feasibility of operating an under-ice base in Greenland.

Although both plans ultimately failed, the camp was powered by a small nuclear reactor, which left its own radioactive footprint. The site and its waste were abandoned in 1967 in the hope that continued snowfall would bury them.

A recent study found that the liquid waste was buried at a depth of 32 meters (104 feet) in 2017, deeper than in 1964, meaning the plan to bury the radiation in ice and snow had worked – but the conditions in Greenland have begun to change radically.

Given the rate of warming and thawing ice, another study reported that the contagion would likely remain stationary until 2100. After that, things could get messy. Even if the debris is not fully exposed to the elements, global warming is likely to increase meltwater leakage and increase the risk of radiation seeping into the environment.

Other studies have reached more worrying conclusions. In 2016, scientists found that the ice sheet at Camp Century could effectively collapse within 75 years if greenhouse gas emissions remain unchanged. If that happens, the reports say, it would “guarantee the eventual remobilization of physical, chemical, biological and radiological waste left at the site.”

It is particularly concerning because neither the US, Greenland, nor Denmark (which controls Greenland) have proposed plans for cleaning up the pollution under Camp Century.

“The potential to impact the environment exists, which could further affect the food chain and also the people living in the area,” Hjalmar Dahl, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council Greenland, told Grist in light of the new report.

“I think it is important that the governments of Greenland and the US communicate about this worrying issue and prepare for what they can do about it,” Dahl said.

Problems in the Pacific

The Marshall Islands are perhaps the best known of the locations. This Pacific atoll was a punching bag for US nuclear testing during the Cold War and witnessed at least 67 nuclear bomb explosions between 1946 and 1958.

A mushroom cloud from a US nuclear weapons test at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on July 25, 1946

A mushroom cloud from a US nuclear weapons test at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on July 25, 1946

Image credit: United States Department of Defense (Public Domain)

By the late 1970s, the resulting mess of irradiated soil and debris from six different islands (along with tons of contaminated soil from Nevada) was transported to a giant pit on Runit Island, where it was mixed with concrete and buried in a dome. . For years, the problem seemed to have been successfully swept under the rug. However, the nuclear grave is in danger of bursting open due to rising sea levels and other effects of climate change.

Some atolls remain uninhabitable to this day. In populated areas, residents have repeatedly expressed concern that the radioactive legacy of nuclear testing is damaging their health, particularly in terms of local cancer rates. The US denies this and claims the Marshall Islands is safe, claiming the cancers are hereditary.

The report settles these disagreements between Marshall Islands and US officials. If anything, it leans toward suggesting that the extent of nuclear contamination has been exaggerated. However, it does suggest that the U.S. Department of Energy should improve the Marshallese people’s access to clear information about the contamination.

A radioactive crash over Spain

There’s also the little-known town of Palomares, a fishing village in Spain that was showered with radioactive contamination in 1966 when an American bomber plane collided with refueling tankers in mid-air.

A total of 9 kilograms of oxidized isotopes of plutonium, uranium and americium spread over 2.3 square kilometers of the Spanish coast. Fortunately, no local residents or animals were reportedly injured.

The US and Spain tried to clean up the radioactive debris strewn in and around the city. Part of this cleanup effort included returning tons of soil and vegetation debris to the US, where it was buried in Aiken, South Carolina.

However, some contamination remains to this day. In the 1990s, it was determined that radioactive contamination around Palomares continued to exceed European Union standards. The US and Spain have since signed a memorandum of understanding to address the problem in Palomares, but little real progress has been made.

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