When white flakes fell from the sky in the atolls belonging to the Marshall Islands, children were in awe and wonder, thinking it was snowing. It wasn’t snow. This ‘white ash’ was the fallout from the thermo-nuclear bomb called Castle Bravo, detonated on March 1st, 1954.
The Castle Bravo nuclear test was not the first and neither would it be the last. The nuclear testing programme prevailed in the Pacific from 1946 to 1996 by the USA, France and the United Kingdom on the premise of securing the world from the threat of nuclear attack from the Soviet Union.
The traditional security philosophies and strategies of nuclear deterrence during the cold-war era has left a Pacific legacy that has had a critical impact on individuals, communities, health systems, the environment, politics and economies. The United Nations Development Fund identified these concepts as factors of human security in its ground breaking Human Development Report in 1994.
The Runit Dome in the Marshall Islands is sealed over 3.1 million cubic feet of irradiated soil and other radioactive debris as well as plutonium. This dome known as the “The Tomb” is at risk of leaking due to the rising sea levels. The Marshall Islands government maintains its claim that the US government has not taken responsibility for the environmental catastrophe they have left behind with regard to the potential leak of the contents of the dome into the sea and the questions of resettlement for those that have been internally displaced
France conducted 193 atmospheric and underground nuclear tests in French Polynesia over 30 years, ending in 1996. Land and sea were used as nuclear waste dumping grounds contaminated with radioactivity and plutonium when a bomb cracked on Moruroa. The health impacts of nuclear testing by France on the people of French Polynesia has been underplayed by the French government, according to the International Physicians For the Prevention of Nuclear War. A lack of transparency and data measuring the direct links of nuclear radiation in the environment and health has made it challenging to monitor as symptoms and diseases caused by radiation exposure have only come to light in recent years.
Fijian and I-Kiribati servicemen and civilian personnel were among those that worked with the nuclear testing of bombs and waste disposal in Krisimasi and Malden islands, between 1957 and 1958. Grappling with the Bomb : Britain’s Pacific H-bomb tests authored by Nic Maclellan, details the stories of victims, witnesses and the lack of accountability and cover ups by the UK government under Harold Macmillan.
The climate change discourse has done two significant things in the Pacific: it has united the region in one voice and it has also obfuscated the region’s human rights issues. Before climate change put Pacific leaders and civil society on the world stage, the protests and the movement to halt nuclear testing in the Pacific region was one of the catalysts of regional political and moral agency. Although not all Pacific nations were used for nuclear testing, the first post-colonial generation of Pacific political leaders from Fiji, (Western) Samoa and Tonga, united their voices in protest to end it. (See chapter six of Greg Fry’s Framing the Islands, The decolonisation of regional governance.)
International relations scholar, Mohammed Ayoob in his 1995 book, The Third World Security Predicament: State Making, Regional Conflict, and the International System, identifies the relationship between colonial and post-colonial legacy and its history of ongoing unsettled issues of ‘new’ states even into the twenty-first century. Pacific island nations such as Marshall Islands have not only inherited their colonial histories but also the human and environmental impacts of the nuclear testing legacy some seventy-four years later, while still forming their agency as independent states.
Pacific island leaders agreed that climate change remains the single greatest threat to regional security in the Boe Declaration. However, the existing human rights challenges that are linked to nuclear testing risk being obscured by the climate crisis.
A new generation of leaders who are making their debut in the climate change discourse may not fully understand the legacy of nuclear testing and how it continues to be linked to the question of self-determination and the fight for the recognition of human rights.
The climate change discourse might become seized by narratives that could propagate other agendas and focus away from human rights issues such as those caused by nuclear testing.
The atomic blast of Castle Bravo on Bikini Atoll caused the irradiation of a Japanese fishing vessel when its crew were fishing in the Pacific Ocean at the time of the explosion. This incident not only caused a diplomatic incident between Japan and US governments but also inspired the cinematic birth of Gojira or Godzilla, as the creature is commonly known. Godzilla became an iconic symbol of Japanese post-nuclear legacy after USA dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
But even Godzilla’s own history has been controlled by narratives which attempt to diffuse the nuclear discourse. American movie re-makes left out references and distorted the context of Godzilla’s origins in comparison to the original Japanese version in 1954, whose storyline served as a reminder of the nuclear bomb and its devastation on humanity.
Environmental degradation, internal displacement, impacts on health, the lack of political and social agency are not all effects of climate change. These are some of the pre-existing factors that are linked to nuclear testing in parts of the Pacific and supported by evidence.
The climate change context may make these factors worse if the root causes of human suffering are not recognised, addressed and ameliorated.
Grace Maharaj was born in Fiji and grew up in New Zealand and is a resident of Sweden. She has worked with asylum and migration for the social services department under the municipality of Stockholm. She is currently studying Climate Change Leadership, Peace and Conflict Studies at the Uppsala University, Sweden.