Giant clams are a delicacy in the Marshall Islands but they’ve been found to contain high levels of plutonium — the remnants of a long history of American nuclear tests — prompting fears health issues in the country could be linked.
- The Marshallese bore the brunt of US nuclear bomb tests between 1946–58
- Tests released large amounts of radioactivity that the US was supposed to clean up
- Local leaders say that people remain fearful of eating contaminated local produce
“You see a nice-looking edible clam in the lagoon — it’s just like giving a kid a lovely lollipop,” nuclear commissioner Alson Kelen told the ABC, maintaining that eating clams will always be part of Marshall Islands life.
“Here it is, but just don’t eat it. It doesn’t work that way.”
From 1946–1958, the US detonated 67 nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands — some of the largest atomic weapons tests in history — and the area near the test site was evacuated, with locals receiving settlement payouts.
In the aftermath, with widespread radiation sickness being reported across the Marshall Islands, radioactive soil, debris, and wreckage was dumped into a nuclear crater on Enewetak Atoll.
The crater was capped with cement in 1980 and is officially called the Runit Dome — but locals have nicknamed it The Tomb.
The Enewatak people eventually began returning to the islands in the early 1980sfollowing highly controversial talks between the United States and leaders of the Marshall Islands.
Amid reports of ongoing aftereffects and illness, a 2012 United Nations report found that the effects of the nuclear tests were long-lasting, which was followed by a 2013 US Department of Energy report which found radioactive materials were leeching out of the Dome, threatening the already tenuous existence of Enewetak locals.
Terry Hamilton, a veteran nuclear scientist at the United States Department of Energy who oversees monitoring of the site, told the ABC that while the area is still irradiated, clams and seafood should not be dangerous to eat.
“While there are higher levels of plutonium in the environment at the present time, that’s not being reflected in terms of the amount of plutonium that’s being taken up by the local people,” he said.
His comments will likely be of little comfort to Marshall Islands residents, who have borne the brunt of the nuclear testing aftermath and remain at the centre of the debate about whether the plutonium is causing them to become ill.
Local nuclear commissioner Mr Kelen told the ABC that people remain afraid six decades after the tests.
“People live out there on the irradiated islands, they survive by eating the fish, clams and everything else that crawls on the lagoon or on land,” he said.
“They get sick.”
But Dr Hamilton maintains that it would be unlikely anyone could ever eat enough clams to get sick.
“While they’re eating [them] they’re just not eating sufficient [amounts to be] causing any sort discernible effect on the levels of plutonium in their body,” he said.
UN chief’s Pacific trip reignites concerns of a catastrophe
The site was catapulted back into the international spotlight during the UN secretary-general’s visit to the Pacific last month.
Antonio Guterres told students in Fiji that he had deep concerns about the impacts climate change could have on the structural integrity of the Dome which he referred to as “a kind of coffin”.
“I’ve just been with the President of the Marshall Islands, Hilda Heini, who is very worried because there is a risk of leaking radioactive materials,” he said.
The US Department of Energy has admitted that radioactive water is leaking from the Dome, and that cracks have begun to form in its concrete roof, but Dr Hamilton disputed suggestions of an impending environmental catastrophe.
“The idea that it may lead to some sort of catastrophic event, not only in the local marine environment but across the Pacific, is false,” he said.
Dr Hamilton said that the area near the Dome was already contaminated, but maintained that it was the result of the fallout from the original nuclear tests.
“The total amount of plutonium that’s contained in the Runit Dome is very, very low compared with what’s already out in the lagoon,” he said.
“I certainly wouldn’t be worried about living there from a radiological point of view.”
The nuclear scientist has stressed that people living in the region are actually exposed to less radiation than people living in big cities.
“If they were to move away [to other parts of the globe] their total exposure to radiation would not decrease, it would most certainly increase,” he said.
But for Marshall Islands Senator Jack Ading, who represents the Enewetak Atoll, Dr Hamilton’s claims are “not very reassuring”.
“I’m not a scientist. I’m also not a doctor, but they say it’s always prudent to get a second opinion no matter how good your doctor is,” Senator Ading told the ABC.
“[The US] has a history of underestimating the risks created by the contamination of our islands.
“We have too much at stake to rely solely on the information provided by US.”
But despite the contamination, any further clean up appears unlikely in the near future.
“I think that would be a very difficult exercise … you would need to basically remove the contaminated sediment from the seafloor,” Dr Hamilton said.
“You’d be looking at millions upon millions of tonnes of material that you would need to move from the atoll, and that in itself would have probably have a more devastating effect on the land.”