IN MAY, AS HBO’S CHERNOBYL introduced American viewers to Soviet ineptitude in the face of disaster, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres brought to the world’s attention an embarrassing chapter of the United States’ own nuclear history. Speaking to a group of students during an official visit to the Pacific Islands region, Guterres recounted a meeting he had with Hilda Heine, the president of the Marshall Islands.
Heine, he said, “is very worried because there is a risk of leaking of radioactive materials that are contained in a kind of coffin” in her country.
As several news outlets soon explained, the “coffin” Guterres was talking about is a remnant of nuclear testing the United States conducted on the Marshall Islands after the military annexed the collection of atolls during the Second World War. From 1946 to 1958, the government detonated 67 massive nuclear weapons over the islands—among them, a hydrogen bomb that produced an explosion 1,000 times larger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which was two and a half times larger than scientists had expected. Infamously known as Castle Bravo, the test spread fluffy white radioactive fallout over 7,000 square miles of ocean and sparsely populated islands, where unsuspecting children played in it.
In the late 1970s, the United States attempted to clean up one of the Marshall Islands testing sites. On the Enewetak Atoll, workers scraped the radioactive topsoil and stored it in a pit (the “coffin”), then covered it with a concrete dome 18 inches thick. But the storage was supposed to be only temporary, and after decades of exposure, the dome began to crack. Now, with sea-level rise resulting from climate change expected to submerge the Marshall Islands in coming years, the defective dome is threatening to contaminate that entire area of the Pacific.
Speaking to Australia’s ABC News in 2017, a Marshallese activist referred to the Enewetak dome as “the connection between the nuclear age and the climate change age.” This seems to be the consensus analysis of the situation, and it’s undoubtedly noteworthy—radioactive sites and sea-level rise are a perilous combination that the world is not at all prepared to handle.
Yet there’s more to that equation still. The Castle Bravo miscalculation, the sloppy and inadequate cleanup, even the nuclear tests themselves would have never been issues for climate change to exacerbate if not for the Marshall Islands’ deferential relationship with the United States. It’s a dynamic the country shares with several other current and former territories around the world—Puerto Rico, which Wall Street has kept on life support as a means of extorting profit; the US Virgin Islands, natural disasters on which the federal government has largely disregarded; Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, at the mercy of the whims of the US military.
And with a climate crisis on the horizon, the hundreds of islands that make up these territories are staring down a deadly and dual-pronged threat: climate change and their own colonial pasts.