- by Eileen Whitehead
- The Guardian
- Issue #1987
Between 1946 and 1958, the United States tested sixty-seven nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands. These nuclear tests, conducted on Bikini and Enewetak Atolls, caused severe humanitarian and environmental problems for the Marshallese and forced many to evacuate from their traditional lands.
In 1952, the United Kingdom began nuclear weapons tests in Australia and UK Pacific colonies, with twelve atmospheric tests at the Monte Bello Islands, Maralinga and Emu Field in Australia (1952–57). Under “Operation Grapple,” the British government conducted another nine atomic and hydrogen bomb tests at Kiritimati and Malden islands in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony, in 1957-58.
For thirty years, between 1966 and 1996, France also conducted 193 atmospheric and underground nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls in French Polynesia.
On Enewetak Atoll, the US gathered contaminated soil and placed it in a cement dome on Runit. The dome’s structural integrity has been eroding since it was constructed in the late 1970s, and now, due to rising sea levels and climate change, the Marshallese population fears its ultimate collapse and further contamination of Enewetak lands lagoon, and the Pacific Ocean.
Simultaneously, rising sea levels have been weakening the seawalls in the Marshall Islands. Consequently, saltwater has inundated local crops and freshwater reserves, and along with sustained drought in the northern atolls, has led to severe crop failures. Further, frequent flooding has increasingly forced Marshallese residents from their homes, and there are serious concerns that these low-lying atolls will soon become uninhabitable. As the Marshallese community faces ongoing threats due to nuclear contamination and climate change, both the Marshallese Educational Initiative and Reverse the Trend believe that it is crucial for Marshallese youth to educate the public about the horrors of the aforementioned existential threats and express their concerns about US attitudes towards the plight of the Marshallese.
In Australia and across the region, people protested against atmospheric nuclear testing, which spread radioactive fallout across inhabited islands and further afield by the prevailing winds and ocean currents. Later underground testing fractured the base of fragile atolls, contaminating the marine environment. Today, the legacies of nuclear testing continue. Many service personnel who staffed the test sites and nearby Pacific communities are living with adverse health and environmental impacts. Veterans, community groups and indigenous organisations are campaigning for the clean-up of test sites and compensation for health effects.
In April 2014, the Marshall Islands brought claims against the nine nuclear weapon states of the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, France, Israel, North Korea, India and Pakistan, arguing that their continued possession of nuclear weapons amounts to a breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). French-Polynesia’s opposition party announced that its future government will join the Marshall Islands in its International Court of Justice litigation against the nine nuclear states for breaching the NPT. Signing the treaty in 1968, the The Permanent of the UN Security Council (P5) states have committed to observing Article VI of the NPT, under which they are obliged “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”
David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, said the US-conducted nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands over twelve years (1946 – 1958) – sixty-seven in total – were the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs detonating daily for twelve years.
However, despite documented health effects still plaguing Marshallese islanders, US Federal Court Judge Jeffrey White dismissed the motion in 2015, saying the harm caused by the US flouting the NPT was “speculative.” White granted the US government’s motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that the Republic of the Marshall Islands, although a party to the NPT, lacked standing to bring the case, and that the court’s ruling was bound by the “political question doctrine” – that is, White ruled the question was a political one, not a legal one, and he therefore could not rule for the Marshalls.
Since the 1950s, churches, trade unions, women’s organisations and customary leaders in the islands have been opposing these nuclear tests. Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP), the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) and the Pacific Trade Union Forum (PTUF) have supported self-determination for Pacific colonies and the abolition of nuclear weapons. Protests have been ongoing. Brave people, like British pacifist Harold Steele unsuccessfully planned to sail into the middle of the British nuclear test zone at Christmas Island; the Vega, Fri, Rainbow Warrior and other vessels all sailed into Pacific test zones. The Pacific Peacemaker with Bill and Lorraine Ethell, and their children on board, challenged the regional deployment of nuclear-armed US Trident submarines.
In the 1980s, at the height of the US–Soviet arms race, Vanuatu, Palau and New Zealand declared their territory nuclear-free. And, no-one can forget the outrageous bombing operation (Opération Satanique) planned by the branch of the French foreign intelligence services, the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure (DGSE), which sank the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour in April 1985, and killed Francois Regis Verlet. On Hiroshima Day in 1985, members of the Pacific Islands Forum signed the Rarotonga Treaty for a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ), an important regional contribution to global nuclear disarmament. Australian disarmament campaigners worked to strengthen the Rarotonga treaty, in the face of government attempts to limit its scope to protect US nuclear deployments in the Pacific.
This might help explain the Pacific Islands’ responses to the AUKUS security partnership which they believe undermines the Pacific community’s deep commitment to keeping the Pacific nuclear-free.
Kiribati President, Taneti Maamau, said that the development of nuclear raises troubling memories, as his people are still the victims of nuclear testing. Many are still unable to return to thDo you want meir contaminated islands. He added that Scott Morrison might have had the courtesy to raise it, and to discuss it with Australia’s Pacific neighbours.
It is true that Australia’s new submarines will not be nuclear-armed, and therefore not in contravention of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty. However, this misses the point that the shared – and deeply felt – Pacific commitment to a nuclear-free region goes well beyond the weapons prohibitions listed in the treaty. Pacific islanders’ passionate belief in a broader concept of a nuclear-free Pacific derives from their lived experience of being used as the “proving grounds” for nuclear weapons testing from the 1940s to the 1990s. Surely an Australian Prime Minister should have realised this?