This year Pacific islanders are marking the 60th anniversary of “Castle Bravo”, the second series of nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. It produced radioactive fallout whose lethal effects are still being felt today. But who cares?
Operation Crossroads was the name given to a series of nuclear weapons tests conducted by the USA at Bikini Atoll in mid-1946. It was the first time a nuclear device had been detonated since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Its purpose was to investigate the effect of nuclear weapons on naval ships.
The next series of tests over Bikini Atoll was code-named Operation Castle. The first was called Castle Bravo, using a newly designed dry fuel thermonuclear hydrogen bomb. It was detonated on March 1, 1954. The 15 megaton nuclear explosion was about 1,000 times more powerful than each of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Since the beginning of the nuclear era, Pacific islands were the location for the development and proliferation of nuclear arms. In August 1945, the aircraft “Enola Gay” set off from the Micronesian island of Tinian carrying the atomic bomb destined for Hiroshima. The next year, the USA began testing nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands. Over the following five decades, more than 315 nuclear tests were carried out in the region by France, Great Britain and the USA.
The Western powers had decided to conduct their programme of Cold War nuclear tests on isolated atolls in the central and south Pacific and in the deserts of South Australia – at Emu Field and Maralinga, the home of the Tjarutja, an Indigenous Australian people. Test centres in the Pacific are still used for the development of the intercontinental ballistic missiles that are essential components of a nuclear war.
Today, numerous Pacific communities live with the health and environmental consequences of nuclear testing. Deep concerns in the face of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear arms have encouraged wide support for a world free of nuclear armaments. And since the 1950s, people of good will throughout the region have been campaigning to put an end to testing and to abolish nuclear arms.
Since their independence from the colonial powers, Pacific nations have also expressed support for nuclear disarmament. In 1985, at the height of the US-Soviet arms race, on the anniversary of Hiroshima, the members of the South Pacific Forum (today called the Pacific Islands Forum) signed and ratified the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty. It was a significant regional contribution to global nuclear disarmament. In 1996, after the end of nuclear testing in the region, several island governments continued to support international efforts towards a nuclear weapons ban.
Today, thousands of nuclear weapons remain throughout the world – more than two decades after the end of the Cold War. Although they have unimaginable destructive capacity, they are the only weapons of mass destruction that have not been banned by an international convention. Given the catastrophic impact of nuclear weapons, their prohibition and eradication is the only responsible way forward. A global ban could be achieved very quickly if enough public pressure and political will are brought to bear.
But there’s the rub. Geopolitics and geo-economics, the military-industrial complex in cahoots with both, the actions of countries that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (such as India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea), and the actions of countries that have signed the Treaty but ignore it – all conspire to sabotage any concerted and sustained move towards global condemnation.
Meanwhile, the people of the Pacific Island States continue to suffer from radiation induced leukaemia; thyroid cancer; long-term contamination of the environment and its food sources; displacement; and psychological stress and anxiety for future generations. Many have become nomads, disconnected from their lands and their cultural and indigenous way of life.
As Arundhati Roy wrote in The Cost of Living (1999):
“It is such a supreme folly to believe that nuclear weapons are deadly only if they’re used. The fact that they exist at all, their presence in our lives, will wreak more havoc than we can begin to fathom. Nuclear weapons pervade our thinking. Control our behaviour. Administer our societies. Inform our dreams. They bury themselves like meat hooks deep in the base of our brains. They are purveyors of madness. They are the ultimate colonizer.”