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Saturday, December 4, 2021

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Something’s not quite right in the Marshall Islands

On the white picture-perfect sand in the central Pacific, a word weary concrete dome is washed tenderly by the tide. You may think that this gargantuan monstrosity is a necessary inconvenience, a price to pay for living in an otherwise Micronesian paradise., far removed from the hustle and bustle of modern urban life. You would be way wrong.

This is a toxic dump, the mother of toxic dumps. And it is leaking.

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States detonated 67 nuclear bombs on, in and above the Marshall Islands — vaporising whole islands sending hundreds of people from their home to exile.

The United States also conducted a dozen biological weapons tests and offloaded 130 tons of soil from the severely contaminated Nevada testing site. The contaminated soil was dumped into the dome.

The concrete dump, which locals call “the Tomb,” is gradually collapsing as result of rising seawaters. As polar glaciers melt and ocean waters rise, the tides regularly engulf the dome. The scientists who came up with the bright idea of building a hermetically sealed dump did not consider the longer-term implications. The USA has also washed its hands of the problem. More fake news.

The truth is that the United States did not tell the Marshallese that in 1958, it shipped 130 tons of soil from its atomic testing grounds in Nevada to the Marshall Islands.

The  Runit Dome holds more than 3.1 million cubic feet — or 35 Olympic-sized swimming pools — of U.S.-produced radioactive soil and debris, including lethal amounts of plutonium. Nowhere else has the United States saddled another country with so much of its nuclear waste, a product of its Cold War atomic testing program.

Runit Island one of 40 islands of the Enewetak Atoll of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The island is the site of a radioactive waste repository left by the United States after it conducted a series of nuclear tests on Enewetak Atoll between 1946 and 1958. There are ongoing concerns around the deterioration of the waste site and a potential radioactive spill.

Embed from Getty Images

The Runit Dome, also called “Cactus Dome” or locally “The Tomb”, is a 115 m diameter, 46 cm  thick dome of concrete at sea level, encapsulating an estimated 73,000 m3 of radioactive debris, including some plutonium-239

From 1977 to 1980, loose waste and topsoil debris scraped off from six different islands in the Enewetak Atoll was transported here, mixed with concrete, and stored in the nuclear blast crater of the “Cactus” test from May 6, 1958. Four thousand US servicemen were involved in the cleanup and it took three years to complete. The waste-filled crater was finally entombed in concrete.

The trouble is that concrete is porous. Cancer levels are rising amongst locals. Fish are dying. The coral is gone.

In 1982, a US government task force raised concerns about a probable breach if a severe typhoon were to hit the island. In 2013, a report by the US Department of Energy found that the concrete dome had weathered with minor cracking of the structure.  However, the soil around the dome was found to be more contaminated than its contents, so a breach could not increase the radiation levels by any means. Because the cleaning operation in the 1970s only removed an estimated 0.8 percent of the total transuranic waste in the Enewetak atoll, the soil and the lagoon water surrounding the structure now contain a higher level of radioactivity than the debris of the dome itself, so even in the event of a total collapse, the radiation dose delivered to the local resident population or marine environment should not change significantly. Concern primarily lies in the rapid tidal response to the height of the water beneath the debris pile, with the potential for contamination of the groundwater supply with radionuclides.

One particular concern is that, in order to save costs, the original plan to line the porous bottom crater with concrete was abandoned   Since the bottom of the crater consists of permeable soil, there is seawater inside the dome.  However, as the Department of Energy report stated, the released radionuclides will be very rapidly diluted and should not cause any elevated radioactive risk for the marine environment, compared to what is already experienced.] Leaking and breaching of the dome could however disperse plutonium, a radioactive element that is also a very toxic heavy metal.

A tribunal, established by the two countries in 1988, concluded the United States should pay $2.3 billion in claims, but Congress and U.S courts have refused. Documents show the U.S. paid just $4 million.

The Marshall Islands are not unique in being at the receiving end of neo-colonisation appropriation of assets. Much of the population of the Chagos Islands was deported by the British Government in a quid pro quo with the USA. The Americans have a strategically important military base there, while the British get nuclear technology and access to US military hardware at discount. Despite a UN ruling,  Britain still claims sovereignty over the Chagos.

The dysfunctional British Immigration Office is continually threatening to now deport the descendants of the exiled Chagosians back to Chagos on the grounds that they are not British, despite being born in Britain- except they can’t because the Chagosians are not allowed home.

And let us not forget the Bikini atoll. Nuked into oblivion as a test.

What has this to do with superyachts? The Marshall Islands is a popular flag of convenience with well-established yacht codes and inexpensive registration. International Registries provides support to the Republic of the Marshall Islands Maritime and Corporate Registries, with offices in London, New York, Dubai, Beijing and in most major cities, but not in the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands is fast becoming a premier flag of convenience with a clear and concise yacht code for both commercial and private yachts, though still lagging behind the Cayman which bag 45% of the off-shore registrations. The Marshall Registry offers a quick turn around of documents.

Flags of convenience are useful ways of handling the complicated structure of superyacht industries. Ownership and management facilities are often bundled into a Special Purpose Vehicle which is registered to an offshore flag. Nothing sinister there. But offshore registration can also be used to conceal ownership and evasion of responsibility.  One superyacht valued at 350 million was registered to the Marshall Islands as a means of avoiding division of assets in a high profile divorce case.

With ecology on the top of the agenda– the boss of Feadship announced at METS 2019  that they would be a zero-emissions manufacturer by 2025 – how sensitive is the superyacht industry to the plight of the Marshall Islands? The problem there is severe but not surmountable. It just needs a pubic awareness campaign, responsibility to be taken, and a ton of money thrown at the problem. The Superyacht Industry is in a prime position to influence the world of high finance and shed light on the plight of the Marshall Islands which have been treated atrociously by the USA and the West.

The Superyacht Industry is known to be the domain of the fabulous and the wealthy. But how cool is it to have your yacht registered to a toxic dump?

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