What's Hidden in The Runit Dome Can Destroy the Earth

This hidden dome in the Marshall Islands has a dangerous secret about it. Let's investigate the terrible secret that lie beneath the uninhabited Runit Island.


While it might look like an ordinary dome in the middle of an island, this concrete sarcophagus hides a terrible secret that could hugely impact the world. Naturally, it's a little weird to have a big concrete circle in the middle of an uninhabited island. What could it be? Let's investigate why what's hidden in this dome can destroy a large chunk of our planet.

Runit Island Dome

The Marshall Islands is an island country of a little more than 50,000 people, spread out across 29 coral atolls, one of which is Runit Island, one of more than 1,100 individual islands and islets making up the Marshall Islands, and part of the Enewetak Atoll.

Seen from above, it looks like a peaceful spot to vacation, with palm trees, blue waters, and sandy beaches. The dome itself (sometimes called the Cactus Dome or The Tomb), however, is a bit unsightly.

Runit Island Dome

While many of the other islands are inhabited and pleasant places to visit, Runit Island will be uninhabited for a very long time; at least 24,000 years, probably more. The island itself is considered too remote to be guarded, so anyone can visit by boat but you wouldn't want to hang out there for an extended period of time.

The dome is built in the crater of the “Cactus test”, a nuclear test conducted on Runit Island in 1958. The hollowed-out crater left behind by the nuclear blast was filled with radioactive waste from the Cactus and other nuclear tests the US conducted during the Cold War, between 1946 and 1958. After three years of cleanup, the dome was covered with concrete.

Runit Cactus covered in concrete Dome

Radioactive Waste

Unfortunately, plans to line the bottom of the dome with concrete before piling in the radioactive waste were canceled due to cost, and the atolls are made of coral, a very porous substance. That means radioactive waste has started leaching out of the bottom of the crater.

Worse, plans to keep all the material entombed in concrete also failed to take into account global warming, which was not a concept anyone was familiar with in the 1950s. It's possible rising sea levels could destroy the top of the dome, spreading radioactive waste out into the Pacific Ocean.

Sadly, many people have already been hurt by waste materials created during the United States' Cold War nuclear tests. One blast in the Bikini atoll, Operation Castle, sent up a large mushroom cloud of radioactive wastes after producing a much larger yield than the scientists expected.

Operation Castle Nuclear test mushroom cloud

The nuclear engineers weren't the only ones who miscalculated. Weather forecasters, as accurate then as they are now, predicted winds would blow the cloud away from any inhabited areas. Unfortunately, they were very wrong, and residents of Enyu Atoll were visited by a cloud of ash.

Many didn't know what it was, some even thought the white powder might be snow, despite the warm temperatures. The island was evacuated, but many inhabitants, including children, already suffered severe burns. The cloud spread further, reaching the Rongerik, Rongelap, and Utrik atolls.

The US government belatedly evacuated people from the islands. Meanwhile, residents who had already been relocated to nearby atolls so Bikini could be used for testing were also told they could return home afterward.

Nuclear Blast Bikini Atoll islands affected Operation Castle nuclear mushroom cloud

Unfortunately, that didn't work out either, and many of the islands still have high levels of radioactivity today. Worse, the US decided to study the effects of the radiation on the islands' survivors, by setting up a secret project, essentially using the victims for medical research without their consent or knowledge.

Marshall Islands inhabitants weren't the only ones harmed by the nuclear tests. Several Japanese fishermen became ill with radiation poisoning after being in the area around the time of one test blast. Their ship was covered in radioactive ash, and many showed symptoms of acute radiation sickness. One fisherman later died from Hepatitis, which he likely contracted from a blood transfusion used to treat his radiation poisoning.

Enewetak Atomic Cleanup Veterans

Then there were the US military members sent to clean up the islands and build that ominous dome on Runit Island. Former serviceman Jim Androll was sent to the Enewetak atoll in the 1970s to work on cleaning up the island. He says he and other service personnel were not informed of the radioactivity and were misled into believing they were visiting a nice beach in the Pacific.

US Military radioactive Cleanup Enewetak Atoll Marshall Islands nuclear testing Enewetak Atomic Cleanup Veterans

Press coverage at the time said the US armed forces personnel were working to “beautify” the island while cleaning up that pesky radioactive waste. When journalists visited with TV cameras, they got footage of people working in radiation suits. However, Androll says that was just a show for the cameras.

He claims the real workers were given no specialized gear or training, and were issued their standard warm-weather uniforms, which included shorts and t-shirts. He recalls picking up chunks of debris, most likely plutonium waste from a nuclear test that fizzled, and putting them into trash bags, which were tossed into the dome. Declassified documents suggest officials in Washington were aware of the island's radioactivity levels. However, they claimed the armed forces personnel were given protective gear and should not have been in any danger.

US Military radioactive Cleanup Enewetak Atoll Marshall Islands nuclear testing

Jim Androll tells a different story. For years, he says he's been plagued with health problems caused by the radiation he was exposed to on Enewetak. Androll also says he knows many other Enewetak veterans who also suffer health problems they believe are related to their time in the Marshall Islands, they even have a Facebook group to discuss their issues online.

This is particularly problematic because the US government doesn't recognize armed forces personnel who worked on the atoll as “atomic veterans.” In government speak, that means they don't have special health coverage to deal with problems caused by radiation. The government says their safety precautions were exemplary, and the more than 4,000 troops on Enewetak were exposed to levels of radiation below recommended limits.

They also say any illnesses the veterans experienced later must be unrelated to their involvement in the nuclear cleanup. Because they don't have special health coverage like other “atomic veterans”, many involved with the Runit Island cleanup are saddled with crippling medical debt. Ken Kasik says he was initially excited to run a military exchange on Enewetak. At this time, it seemed like a dream come true because he'd always wanted to live on a deserted island in the Pacific. Unfortunately, the years of health problems that followed, including more than forty surgeries for cancerous lesions, have turned his dream into a nightmare.

US Military Atomic veteran Ken Kasik Enewetak nuclear test ICU

Sadly, the Marshall Islanders and American Armed Forces personnel who were exposed to radiation in the atolls may not be the last victims of the nuclear test site. Remember that global warming wasn't on anyone's mind in the seventies, and rising sea levels could compromise the dome, which is likely already leaking radiation through its coral bottom. And this isn't even the worst nuclear cleanup disaster site; that would be Hanford, Washington.

The Hanford Site

It's the site where the US produced plutonium that was used in a variety of projects, including that famous one, the Manhattan Project, which produced the nuclear bomb that destroyed Nagasaki in World War II. Hanford's plutonium was also used to stockpile weapons during the Cold War.

Where did all the waste go? Into steel tanks, many of which are now leaking into nearby groundwater. Leaks were found as early as the 1950s, so site management remedied the situation in 1964, by using double-walled tanks. Shockingly, those are now leaking too. Fifty-six billion tons of nuclear waste are sitting near the center of the site.

Hanford storage tanks nuclear radioactive waste site

Once a booming suburb built around the plutonium production facility, Hanford now has a new industry: nuclear waste cleanup. The cleanup project so far has cost more than 42 billion dollars, and it's expected to continue for at least another fifty years.

The Department of Energy, or DOE, manages the project and loves to brag about its successes in treating more than nine billion gallons of groundwater, cocooning seven reactors, and cleaning or destroying many buildings. Unfortunately, that ignores the large amount of nuclear waste still sitting at Hanford.

Hanford Nuclear Facility H Reactor Cocoon

Worse, people who worked at or near the site have been reporting illnesses too. Many claim they weren't allowed air tanks when working at the reactor site. Seth Ellingsworth says he fell ill with a rare lung disease after smelling something strange while working at the site.

The breathing problems that have plagued him since then were diagnosed as “reactive airway disease,” which is usually linked to smoking. But Seth says he never smoked and had no health problems before working at the waste site. Other residents have been diagnosed with dementia, a common problem in the elderly, but many of the Hanford sufferers are relatively young.

While the DOE has committed to cleaning up Hanford, the US, and other countries, have a terrible track record when it comes to dealing with nuclear wastes. Weapons aside, many parts of the country use nuclear reactors to produce electricity, and burning coal comes with its own environmental problems. So, what's a better way to deal with nuclear waste? The following are some ideas from the world's top brains.

Nuclear Waste Disposal

One way of dealing with nuclear waste is just simply blasting it into space! We could either load it onto a rocket and fire it into the sun, which is a big burning ball of fire anyway, or just send it anywhere in space. Nobody's going to know, unless some aliens find it and decide to stamp it "return to sender", then we might be in trouble.

spacex starship

Realistically, there are bigger problems though. Edward Teller, known as “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” didn't think strapping a bunch of nuclear waste to a rocket was such a hot idea. After all, rockets have a habit of blowing up. Another suggestion is to somehow get all the nuclear waste to Antarctica and dump it there, no easy feat. Then it can just melt its way to the bottom of the Antarctic ice sheet. As you might imagine, environmental concerns prompted this idea to be officially outlawed by an international treaty before anyone could try it.

Nuclear Waste barrel in Snow Antarctica

But who needs to go all the way to Antarctica when you could just lower canisters of nuclear waste into a deep sea vent on the ocean floor? Find a nice space between some tectonic plates, and that radioactive material can just go the way of the change in your pocket disappearing between couch cushions. On the other hand, if you've seen Sharknado you know that the last thing the world needs is mutant sharks.

These ideas all inevitably lead back to just putting our nuclear waste into tanks that are going to fail well before the material stops radiating. Obviously, it hasn't worked out that well, but on the plus side, no one really has a better idea, so it looks like we're going to keep doing it anyway.

Nuclear Radioactive Waste

So, back to the Runit Island dome. What would happen if rising sea levels or a big storm destroyed the dome, distributing radioactive waste material into the ocean? Experts aren't sure, but some believe it would actually be no big deal.

Some scientists believe that because so much nuclear waste material has already leached into the water around the Marshall Island atolls, if the dome was destroyed things might not get significantly worse than they already are. On the other hand, maybe instead of a tornado, we'll get a hurricane of glow-in-the-dark sharks. Hollywood might like this idea!

I hope you were amazed at this remote dome in Runit Island and what it would mean if it broke open. If you are curious about the relationship between SpongeBob SquarePants and atomic tests in the Bikini Atoll, you might want to read our article about theories that will ruin your childhood. Thanks for reading!

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