14 March 2015

Grappling with the Bomb: Opposition to Pacific nuclear testing in the 1950s - by Nic Maclellan



Nic Maclellan, “Grappling with the Bomb: Opposition to Pacific nuclear testing in the 1950s”, Proceedings of the 14th Biennial Labour History Conference, eds, Phillip Deery and Julie Kimber (Melbourne: Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 2015), 21-38. ISBN: 978-0-9803883-3-6. Available for download via Grappling with the Bomb LH Proceedings.

In the fifty years from 1946-1996, the United States, France and the United Kingdom conducted over 315 nuclear tests in the Pacific islands. Starting in the 1940s, there was popular opposition to these testing programs across Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, led by trade unions, churches and indigenous organisations. The author, who was a member of the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement (NFIP) and served in its regional secretariat in Fiji, will discuss the impacts of nuclear testing on the civilian and military personnel who staffed the test sites over fifty years, as well as neighbouring island communities. Using British nuclear testing on Kiritimati (Christmas Island) as a case study, the article will detail ongoing efforts by nuclear survivors to seek recognition and compensation for the health an environmental impacts of testing.

From the beginning of the nuclear age, the United States, Britain and France sought “empty” spaces to conduct their Cold War programs of nuclear testing. For fifty years between 1946 and 1996, the deserts of Australia and the islands of the central and south Pacific were used to conduct over 315 atmospheric and underground tests at ten different sites. From 1946 to 1958, the United States conducted 67 atomic and hydrogen bomb tests at Bikini and Enewetak atolls in the Marshall Islands. In the 1960s, there were 25 further US tests at Christmas (Kiritimati) Island for Operation Dominic and nine more at Johnston (Kalama) Atoll.[1] Britain tested nuclear weapons in Oceania between 1952-58, with 12 tests at the Monte Bello Islands, Maralinga and Emu Field in Australia (1952-57).[2] These were followed by nine hydrogen bomb tests at Christmas (Kiritimati) Island and Malden Island in the central Pacific (1957-58).[3] After conducting 17 nuclear tests in Algeria at Reganne and In Eker between 1960-66, France moved its test sites to the South Pacific. From July 1966 to January 1996, France conducted 193 atmospheric and underground tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls in French Polynesia.[4]

These desert and ocean sites were chosen because they seemed to be vast empty spaces. But the nuclear powers showed little concern for the health and well being of nearby indigenous communities and those civilian and military personnel who staffed the test sites. Many people in the Pacific welcomed the development of nuclear installations across the region, for the economic and employment opportunities created by an influx of military personnel. Political leaders, from Sir Robert Menzies in Australia to Gaston Flosse in French Polynesia, enhanced their political careers through their fawning loyalty to Empire. But significant minorities in countries across the region resisted the nuclear era and continue to campaign for compensation for the health and environmental consequences of more than 300 nuclear tests. Throughout the decades of testing in the Pacific islands, there was widespread popular resistance. Alliances of trade unions, churches, women’s organisations and customary leaders in the islands campaigned for an end to nuclear testing and the abolition of nuclear weapons. Support for nuclear disarmament in Pacific Rim countries like Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the United States is well documented, but there is less recognition of the long-standing resistance by Pacific Island peoples to the nuclear weapons programs.[5]

Following its founding conference in Fiji in 1975, the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement was a driving force in this campaign, linking the issues of environmental damage to indigenous campaigns for self-determination and political independence. The signing of the Rarotonga treaty for a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ) on Hiroshima Day 1985 and the end of French nuclear testing in 1996 were important milestones. However, before the revival of Pacific disarmament campaigning in the 1970s and 1980s, there were sporadic protests against nuclear testing in earlier decades across the islands region.

This paper starts with some examples of these islander protests during the 1950s. The paper then details responses to the UK nuclear testing program in the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, codenamed Grapple, in 1957-8.[6] Most people recognise the names Maralinga, Bikini and Moruroa as nuclear test sites, but Kiritimati and Malden Island are less well known. For this reason, the paper presents the history of the Grapple tests through a patchwork of letters, archival records and oral testimony for four people: pacifist Harold Steele, businessman James Burns, Gilbertese woman Sui Benan Kiritome, and Fijian sailor Paul Ah Poy. These stories reflect the growing number of personal testimonies about nuclear testing in the Pacific. In recent publications, workers, military personnel and indigenous peoples have told their own history in their own words: women from Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara communities in South Australia; the Gilbertese workers and Fijian soldiers and sailors who witnessed Britain’s H-bomb tests; and the Maohi labourers who staffed the nuclear test sites of French Polynesia for 30 years.[7