This tropical island is anything but paradise, with toxic waste leaking into the ocean. And it's right on Australia's doorstep.
Looking at the azure seas, beautiful blue lagoons and white sand beaches, you might not realise that this place was toxic.
BUT THOSE LAGOONS ARE ACTUALLY CRATERS LEFT BY NUCLEAR TESTING, AND IF YOU LOOK DOWN TO THE END OF THE BEACH, YOU'LL SEE A CONCRETE DOME HIDING ALL KINDS OF RADIOACTIVE WASTE.
AND NOW WITH RISING SEA LEVELS, THE STORAGE FACILITY — HOUSING TOXIC MATERIALS SUCH AS PLUTONIUM — IS LEAKING INTO THE PACIFIC OCEAN, POTENTIALLY SPREADING ITS DEADLY CONTENTS FAR AND WIDE.
RECIPE FOR DISASTER
THE ENEWETAK ATOLL, IN THE MARSHALL ISLANDS, IS ABOUT HALFWAY BETWEEN AUSTRALIA AND HAWAII.
AFTER WWII, THE ATOLL CAME UNDER CONTROL OF THE US, AND IN 1948 THE FIRST NUCLEAR TEST WAS CARRIED OUT.
OVER THE COURSE OF 10 LONG YEARS, AS PART OF THE COLD WAR, 43 NUCLEAR BOMBS WERE DETONATED, BLASTING CRATERS AND VAPORISING ISLANDS.
When the Americans began cleaning up the area in the late '70s, they didn't factor in climate change.
Now, the rising sea levels have led to the degradation of the large, concrete-domed storage facility holding the radioactive waste — which was built with a porous base of seashells and sand.
BACK IN 2013, A REPORT COMMISSIONED BY THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY CONFIRMED THE BURIAL SITE IS LEAKING ITS HIGHLY TOXIC WASTE.
LOCALS REFER TO IT AS "THE POISON" AND HAVE ALREADY BEEN COMPLAINING OF BIRTH DEFECTS AND HIGH CANCER RATES.
ONE OF THE SUBSTANCES BURIED WITHIN THE NUCLEAR DUMP IS PLUTONIUM — WHICH HAS A HALF-LIFE OF 24,000 YEARS. IT IS ONE OF THE MOST TOXIC AND CARCINOGENIC SUBSTANCES ON THE PLANET. EXPOSURE CAN CAUSE A NUMBER OF HEALTH ISSUES, INCLUDING RADIATION SICKNESS, GENETIC DAMAGE, CANCER AND DEATH.
TESTING WAS MORE FAMOUSLY CONDUCTED IN THE BIKINI ATOLL, AROUND 300KM FROM ENEWETAK. BETWEEN 1946 AND 1958, 23 NUCLEAR DEVICES WERE DETONATED BY THE U.S. ON TEST SITES ON THE REEF, IN THE AIR AND UNDERWATER.
BUT ENEWETAK ACTUALLY ENDURED A MUCH HEAVIER TESTING RATE — AROUND DOUBLE THAT OF ITS NEIGHBOUR.
AS TESTING WENT ON, THE US SAW ITS CAPABILITY TO DESTROY ENTIRE ISLANDS, BOMBING THEM AND OBLITERATING THEM.
SOME OF THE LARGEST NUCLEAR BOMBS EVER TESTED WERE DETONATED IN THE TINY TROPICAL ISLANDS. IN THE '70S, US MEDIA REPORTS LABELLED THE AREA THE MOST DECIMATED AND TOXIC IN THE WORLD.
ONE OF THE BOMBS TESTED IN THE AREA WAS CALLED THE "BRAVO SHOT" — 1000 TIMES MORE POWERFUL THAN THOSE BOMBS DROPPED ON HIROSHIMA AND NAGASAKI.
The US paid for the initial clean-up for the site, sending around 4000 personnel to the area in 1977 undertake the task. During the three-year process, they mixed contaminated soil and debris with cement and buried it in one of the blast craters. The concrete dome was added and in 1980 the atoll was deemed safe for habitation. Local residents returned the same year.
THE LEAK EXPLAINED
How could the US leave the most toxic substances on the planet to leak out into the ocean?
In the late 1970s when the dome was built, rising sea levels were not a consideration.
The storage facility was never properly sealed at its base, and as the climate in the Pacific has become more volatile, the toxic contents have begun to leech out.
The botched clean-up hasn't just affected locals. There are also reports from the thousands of US troops flown in to assist that they were not adequately provided with protective gear, and only given it for photo opportunities. On usual clean-up days, the troops wore just shorts and T-shirts.
"Seawater is penetrating the underside of the dome, because when they threw all this material into the old bomb crater, they didn't line it with anything," reporter Mike Willacy said.
WILLACY TRAVELLED TO THE MARSHALL ISLANDS FOR THE ABC'S FOREIGN CORRESPONDENTPROGRAM IN 2017, SAYING CRACKS WERE VISIBLE IN THE CONCRETE DOME AND THAT RESIDENTS FEARED FOR THEIR LIVES IF THE STRUCTURE WAS TO COLLAPSE. BEYOND THEIR OWN IMMEDIATE SAFETY, THE SURROUNDING RESIDENTS WARNED OF THE CATASTROPHIC FALLOUT THAT COULD ARISE FROM THE WATER FLOWING INTO THE PACIFIC OCEAN.
"THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO LINE IT WITH CONCRETE, BUT THAT NEVER HAPPENED BECAUSE OF COST CONSIDERATIONS. SO, AS THE SEA LEVEL HAS RISEN, THE GROUNDWATER LEVEL HAS RISEN AND THEREFORE YOU HAVE GROUNDWATER PENETRATING INSIDE THE DOME, BECAUSE A LOT OF THIS ATOLL IS OBVIOUSLY SAND (AND) CORAL. IT'S PERMEABLE MATERIAL," WILLACY SAID.
"The dome was only meant to be a temporary solution until the US came up with a permanent plan," he said, describing the concrete solution as a cost-cutting exercise.
The 2013 US government report also warned that the increasing severity of storms in the region meant the dome was at risk of being blown apart.
The same report said that kind of major breach of the facility would not cause further damage to the islands than had already been caused by the Cold War nuclear testing.
A DEAL IS STRUCK
IN 1986, THE US GRANTED THE MARSHALL ISLANDS INDEPENDENCE AND WROTE THEM A CHEQUE FOR $150 MILLION, INTENDED TO GENERATE MONEY TO BE USED AS PAYMENT TO CLAIMANTS AS A RESULT OF DAMAGE AND INJURY CASED BY THE NUCLEAR TESTING.
IN 2010, A LAWSUIT BY THE MARSHALLESE ARGUING OVER "CHANGED CIRCUMSTANCES" OVER THE NUCLEAR CLAIMS TRIBUNAL ESTABLISHED TO MANAGE THE CLAIMS WAS DISMISSED BY THE U.S. SUPREME COURT.
AN ATTEMPT TO UNDERTAKE ANOTHER CLEAN-UP TOOK PLACE IN 2000, TREATING CONTAMINATED AREAS WITH POTASSIUM, BUT SINCE THEN THE RISING SEA LEVELS HAVE CAUSED MORE ISSUES.
'THE LAST GENERATION'
RESIDENTS OF THE MARSHALL ISLANDS FEAR THEIR HOMES ARE AT CONSTANT RISK OF INUNDATION.
AS SEA LEVELS CONTINUE TO RISE AND THE CLIMATE BECOMES MORE UNSTABLE, LOCALS ARE FACED WITH THE HARSH REALITY THAT THEIR ISLAND HOMES ARE BECOMING UNINHABITABLE.
THE CHILDREN WHO LIVE THERE NOW REFER TO THEMSELVES AS "THE LAST GENERATION".
"Time is very limited", 16-year-old Charlotte Jack told US TV network ABC. "Sometimes I think that by the time I graduate and go get my education, try to come back and serve my island, there's no more island. There's no more nation. There's no more culture. And I'm just there, stuck on the mainland, thinking, 'What could I have done?'"
IN THE MARSHALL ISLANDS, THE MOST COMMON CAUSE OF DEATH IS DIABETES, WHICH IS RELATED TO A THYROID DISORDER. THE SECOND MOST COMMON CAUSE OF DEATH IS CANCER.
THE POPULATION HAS LONG TOLD OF HORRIFIC RATES OF BIRTH DEFECTS AND CANCER AND THYROID PROBLEMS, WHICH THE LOCALS ATTRIBUTE TO CONTINUED FALLOUT FROM THE EXTENSIVE RADIOACTIVE BOMBING OF THE AREA.
THE POPULATION OF THE MARSHALL ISLANDS IS AROUND 70,000 PEOPLE, WITH LOCAL MARSHALLESE PEOPLE ALLOWED TO LIVE AND WORK IN THE US WITHOUT A VISA AS PART OF THE REPARATIONS FOR THE NUCLEAR TESTING THAT TOOK PLACE.
OVER A THIRD HAVE ALREADY MOVED TO THE US. IT IS SAID THAT WHEN YOU LEAVE THE MARSHALL ISLANDS, YOU BUY A ONE-WAY TICKET.