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August 5, 2019 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The Nuclear Pacific


Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? (Spongebob Squarepants)

What lives in a concrete dome on Runit Island with the potential to leak into the Pacific Ocean? (Nuclear waste)


The Pacific Islands have a dark history of nuclear exploitation. After World War II, the nuclear arms race was afoot. Major military powers sought to test their technology in isolated, low-populated spaces. The Pacific was considered an ideal “test tube” due to its geographic isolation, small landmass, and small population size. Because the Pacific Islands were home to “foreign natives”, the United States and French colonial powers considered the lives, culture, and wellbeing of the islands expendable.


The US military approached the Marshall Island leaders with the promise that nuclear testing would lead to “the end of all wars, for the good of all mankind”. The US set up the ‘proving grounds’ in the Marshall Islands, on various islands, where they conducted nuclear testing between 1946 and 1963. Between 1945–1963, the United States military performed 42 atmospheric nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll, 60 on Enewetak Atoll, 11 on Johnston Island, and 13 on Christmas Island.


The July 1946 test explosions on Bikini Atoll significantly exceeded the expected radioactivity level. The first thermonuclear bomb, Bravo, was tested over Bikini Atoll in March 1954, anticipated to be a 5 megaton explosion. It turned into 17 megatons. Islanders from Rongelap Atoll, Rongerik Atoll, and Utirik Atoll had to be evacuated by the US Navy within 48 hours of Bravo’s detonation, due to extreme nuclear radiation contamination.


Meanwhile, in French Polynesia, France conducted nuclear testing from 1966–1996 on Mururoa Atoll and Fangataufa Atoll. France performed 41 atmospheric tests and 140 underground tests. The attitudes were perhaps more pointed amongst the French as General de Gaulle made the claim “our bomb is a peaceful one and it is the most peaceful thing we’ve invented since France came into existence”.


Indeed, the nuclear history of the Pacific is very grim and the narrative that surrounds it has always been one that detracts from and decentres the voices of the people of the islands. Painting the Pacific as the “passive” victim of devastation ignores the history of nuclear-free movement and acts of agency within the islands. 


In 1970, a religious anti-nuclear movement ATOM (Against Testing on Mururoa) was established in Fiji. It gained support from the Pacific Conference of Churches and organised the first Nuclear Free Pacific conference in 1975. ATOM expanded to include trade unions, non-governmental organisations, women’s movements, religious groups, and an assortment of disarmament lobbies. ATOM’s ethos was empowered by the idea that if all Pacific Islands enjoyed constitutional independence, the colonial powers would be forced to do their testing elsewhere. It was their goal for all Pacific Island groups to achieve independence.


In 1971, the South Pacific Forum (known now as the Pacific Islands Forum) was born out of the South Pacific Commission. The forum was established to discuss political issues away from the colonial powers present in the South Pacific Commission, who deliberately banned discussions of nuclear testing.


It was the culmination of efforts from political leaders in the South Pacific Forum and community action from within ATOM that lead to the formalised South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone and the Treaty of Rarotonga, signed August 6 1985 by the South Pacific Forum. The treaty bans the use, testing, and possession of weapons within the zone. 


Western academia tends to frame these series of events in a way that places the Pacific as complicit in its own destruction, but the collective agency of these Pacific nations to preserve and protect their islands has to be acknowledged. A nuclear-free treaty came from the recognition that such devastation should never happen again. It was not an individual thought, but a regional consensus that the Pacific be nuclear-free and it has remained so to this day as a result.



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