By Talei Luscia Mangioni
We all know the hazardous nature of radioactive material. The colonial harm of contamination in the Pacific has long been difficult to reverse and has historically leaked across many types of borders, water-ways, bodies and futures. In spite of a long history of nuclear activity in the region from the 1950s until today, the international anti-nuclear movement within the regional memory is often periodised as a relatively short historical episode that centres the testing proceedings of nuclear nation France, roughly beginning in the 1970s and concluding in 1996. In this way, it is often associated with a Baby Boomer and Gen X nostalgia, while the current generation instead looks to climate change as the peak environmental crisis of our time.
This period of history is balanced precariously in contemporary discourses within a paradoxical logic of “progress” and “ruin”. Considered by some as an apocalypse of yesterday bound by current deterrence policies, some believe to have “progressed” beyond the immediate danger of nuclear issues through a collective forgetting. For others, the nihilism still remains and powerful nations are bound to “ruin” through inevitable destruction. But either way, when considering the active and violent legacies of nuclear nations, rather than linger on narratives of these twinned concepts, I consider Anna Tsing’s provocation [pdf] that “neither tales of progress or ruin tell us how to think about collaborative survival”. How can we think of survival through the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement amid the Cold War wreckage emblematic in atomic and nuclear bombs? And how can the memorialising of these atrocities call attention to the contemporary and ongoing harm by nuclear nations?
On March 1st, the world remembered Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Day, marking the 65th anniversary of the American detonation of the “Bravo” hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. With a yield equivalent of 14.8 megatons of TNT, the device was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and by far the most destructive test ever to be conducted by the United States. Purposefully designed to produce a colossal fallout, the Major General Percy Clarkson continued the test despite unfavourable wind forecasts that resulted in a fine radioactive powder over the two neighbouring inhabited atolls of Rongelap and Utirik. Three days later the indigenous Marshallese population were evacuated, deliberately allowing American scientists to study the impacts of contamination on humans, animals and the environment.
The Pacific region has had a long history as a scientific laboratory for the West’s military interests. In 1945, Tinian in the Mariana Islands was the staging ground for the American attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. From 1946 to 1962, the USA tested multiple nuclear devices in the Marshall Islands on Bikini and Enewetak Atolls, as well as, sites in the Central Pacific including Kiritimati (Christmas) and Johnston Island. From 1952 to 1957, the United Kingdom tested nuclear weapons across so-called Australia [pdf] (Montebello, Emu Field and Maralinga) and later from 1957 to 1958, hydrogen bomb “Grapple tests” [pdf] again in the Central Pacific islands of Kiritimati (Christmas) and Malden Island. From 1966 to 1996 the French Government also undertook atmospheric and subterranean testing on the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa Atolls in Tahiti-Polynesia. In Belau, Americans successively attempted to undermine the Nuclear-Free Constitution of 1979 to gain lands to store and operate nuclear weapons.
However, it was the cruelty of the Castle Bravo operation on the Marshalls that provided a catalyst for change. Despite that the Bravo bomb test went censored or misreported in the international mainstream media for two decades, it was the twenty-three crew members of the Japanese tuna fishing vessel Daigo Fukryū Maru (Lucky Dragon) who were present within the radius that brought the focus to a global public, suffering from the impacts of radiation poisoning. Pacific and international outrage over nuclear testing in the Pacific followed. This crystallised in 1975 after the first regional Nuclear Free Pacific conference in Fiji, leading to the inception of the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement. Its charter declared:
“We, the people of the Pacific have been victimised too long by foreign powers. The Western imperialistic and colonial powers invaded our defenceless region, they took over our lands and subjugated our people to their whims. This form of alien colonial, political and military domination unfortunately persists as an evil cancer in some of our native territories such as Tahiti-Polynesia, Kanaky, Australia and Aotearoa. Our environment continues to be despoiled by foreign powers developing nuclear weapons for a strategy of warfare that has no winners, no liberators and imperils the survival of all humankind.”
As an undertaking premised on the collective freedom of indigenous peoples from colonial dominion, the NFIP is considered Oceania’s first regional grassroots movement. This was a loose coalition of indigenous activists across the world, spanning across churches, trade unions, feminist groups and the University of the South Pacific. As allied to both a growing trans-indigenous and decolonisation movement (uniting those from First Nations “Australia” and all the way to Turtle Island), the NFIP were expressly anti-colonial in their staunch critique of nations operating in cohesion to share nuclear knowledges, and competitively to formulate their own arsenals for the purposes of national defence. The NFIP contributed to what the late Tracey Banivanua-Mar would describe as complex “anti-imperial networks” spanning Oceania, weaving a dynamic regionalist consciousness alive and well today.
Even after the end of French nuclear testing programme has ended, the group continues to highlight the heavy burden of the nuclear age that Oceania has endured and demands a moratorium on the militarisation of the Pacific. They continue to assert that a substantial yet unknowable volume of nuclear and chemical waste as a result of testing and military complexes have leaked or been illegally dumped into the Pacific Ocean. They remind us that it’s not a coincidence that the Pacific is also one of the most militarised regions in the world with numerous bases, nuclear storage facilities, training exercises and occupation especially by the armed forces of Indonesia, France, and the US. In Australia, the government continues to engage in uranium mining to export for “civilian purposes” and periodically makes proposals for new nuclear waste dump facilities and reactors despite strong resistance from indigenous and civilian populations.
Instead of regarding nuclear colonialism as a historical relic, the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Day activates our own positionality beyond the limiting tropes of “progress” and “ruin” and instead remembers survival. In this vein, the University of the South Pacific’s Marshall Islands Student Association (MISA) organised the #myfishisyourfish campaign on the day (which included other hashtags like #NuclearJustice4RMI), including a march with speeches and artistic performances to acknowledge the travesty experienced by Marshallese nuclear veterans. In protests like these, the NFIP legacy leaks onwards in new creative acts of resistance encompassing both the digital and physical. Radically re-deploying the mnemonic power of our interlinked nuclear history, MISA joins the chorus of the NFIP in remembering our collective survival, reinvigorating a conversation on contemporary nuclear issues across Oceania today.
Talei Luscia Mangioni is a doctoral candidate in the School of Culture, History and Language, the Australian National University. Her current research aims to chart the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement across Oceania through historical ethnography, braiding archival records and material objects, with oral histories of activists and artists. Follow her on Twitter @talei_luscia