Cold War Nuclear Fallout Is Still Affecting the Pacific, What Does That Mean for Us?

Oceanographer Dr. Ken Buesseler and his team returned to remote Pacific nuclear testing sites to measure radioactive elements left over from the Cold War. Seventy years later, these sites remain uninhabitable—a fact that will only become more salient as sea levels rise.

During the Cold War, the United States government conducted a series of 66 nuclear tests in remote areas of the Pacific, in an effort to put its terrifying atomic potential on display to the world. Seventy years later, the Bikini and Enewetak atolls in the Marshall Islands are still essentially uninhabitable.

Dr. Ken Buesseler and his team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution recently ventured back to these sites to see how much radioactivity is left over, and where it is coming from.

The researchers tested seafloor sediments, groundwater, wells, as well as the water column and marine biota for different levels of radioactive elements such as plutonium and cesium. They conducted forensic-like analysis to determine the sources of the waste, which they could identify down to the specific testing event where it originated.

Throughout his career studying radioactivity in the world's oceans, Ken notes that nuclear activity of any kind -- from clean energy to hydrogen bombs -- will have serious human and environmental effects. “This is definitely one of those nations that will suffer the most from sea level rise due to climate change,” explains Ken, “so they have this double whammy. They have the radioactive waste that hasn't allowed them to move home, and now, they're experiencing the effects of sea level rise and loss of their entire island, all their atolls, a place to live.

"It's been frustrating that we run 400 plus reactors around the world's oceans, around the edges in an inland, and yet we aren't maintaining a cadre of science to deal with the environmental consequence of doing that."