In Japan, they’re called hibakusha – the survivors of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, and the bombing of Nagasaki three days later. Seventy-five years on, the survivors remember those days, and call for the abolition of nuclear weapons.
Yasujiro Tanaka was just 3.4 kilometres from the blast, as the United States dropped an atomic weapon on Nagasaki on 9 August.
“I was three years old at the time of the bombing,” he said. “I don’t remember much, but I do recall that my surroundings turned blindingly white, like a million camera flashes going off at once. Then, pitch darkness. I was buried alive under the house, I’ve been told.”
No one truly knows how many people died in these nuclear attacks. Estimates range from 90,000–146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000–80,000 in Nagasaki, in the initial attack and subsequent weeks. Other hibakusha lived on for decades, stricken by cancer, leukemia and other diseases caused by exposure to ionising radiation.
Across the Pacific, there are also nuclear survivors, who witnessed more than 310 nuclear tests in Australia, Marshall Islands, Kiribati and French Polynesia. On the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their story too is part of nuclear history.
From the very beginning, the Pacific islands were central to the nuclear era. Two US aircraft carried the bombs to Japan from Tinian Island in the Marianas Islands: Enola Gay (which transported the atomic weapon codenamed ‘Little Boy’ to Hiroshima) and Bockscar (which dropped ‘Fat Man’ on Nagasaki).
After the attack on Japan and the death of tens of thousands of civilians, the United States, Britain and France developed their Cold War nuclear arsenals by testing nuclear weapons in Oceania. Nuclear survivors can roll off a long list of Pacific test sites: Bikini, Enewetak, Monte Bello, Emu Field, Maralinga, Malden Island, Christmas (Kiritimati) Island, Johnston (Kalama) Atoll, Moruroa Atoll, Fangataufa atoll.
From 1946 until 1958, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands. There were another 24 tests in the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony in 1962 (today, part of Kiribati), as well as nuclear explosions high in the atmosphere on rockets launched from Johnston Atoll. The largest US atmospheric nuclear test was conducted on Bikini Atoll on 1 March 1954. Codenamed “Bravo”, the test had an explosive yield of 15 megatons, the equivalent of 15 million tons of TNT explosive.
After the Bravo test, Lemeyo Abon was one of the children relocated from Rongelap, one of the northern RMI atolls contaminated by fallout from the Bravo test. This evacuation began a decades-long odyssey that has left many people still living in exile. After returning to live on the contaminated atoll for 30 years, she was again evacuated to Mejatto Island in 1985 aboard the Rainbow Warrior, just before it was attacked and sunk in Auckland Harbour by French intelligence agents (this year is the 35th anniversary of the French terrorist attack on the Greenpeace vessel, which killed photographer Fernando Pereira).
Abon later moved to the Marshall Islands capital Majuro, still far away from her home island, where she told me: “We are still living in this place in exile from our homeland, like a coconut floating in the sea. The United States has to live up to their responsibility and make sure our children and grandchildren will be cared for.”
Sadly, Lemeyo Abon died in exile in 2018, without returning to her home island.
For the Marshallese, the aftermath of the 1954 Bravo test led to tragic consequences. The US military and medical staff from Brookhaven National Laboratory, led by Dr. Robert Conard, saw an opportunity to research the effects of radiation on people living on contaminated land. Under Project 4.1, medical studies were undertaken on at least 539 men, women, and children – often without informed consent – including experimental surgery and injections of chromium-51, radioactive iodine, iron, zinc, and carbon-14.
Over time, Marshall Islanders began to question the way that the medical studies were being conducted. In 1975, Rongelap islander Nelson Anjain wrote a moving letter to Dr. Robert Conard: “I realise now that your entire career is based on our illness. We are far more valuable to you, than you are to us. You have never really cared about us as people – only as a group of guinea pigs for your government’s bomb research effort. For me and the people of Rongelap, it is life which matters most. For you, it is facts and figures. There is no question about your technical competence, but we often wonder about your humanity. We don’t need you and your technical machinery. We want our life and our health. We want to be free.”
People working or living at the nuclear test sites faced the hazard that radioactive isotopes might be inhaled or ingested, potentially causing cancers and other illnesses. But islanders were rarely informed of the hazards of accumulated nuclear particles in the food chain, increasing the danger for those reluctant to give up their traditional diet of fish, coconut and breadfruit.
One example comes from the British hydrogen bomb testing program on Christmas (Kiritimati) Island. During Operation Grapple, the United Kingdom conducted nine atmospheric nuclear tests on Kiritimati and Malden Island in 1957-58.
Tekoti Rotan was one of more than 270 Fijians who witnessed these tests. Rotan was born in Banaba, the location of a major mining operation that eventually consumed two thirds of the island’s land. During the Second World War, the Banabans were removed to Kosrae by the Japanese military. After the war, Britain refused to send the Banabans back to their phosphate-rich home, and many were sent to Rabi in Fiji.
In 1957, as a member of the Fiji Royal Volunteer Naval Reserve, Tekoti Rotan was deployed to Kiritimati Island, as part of the UK naval task force for Operation Grapple. In an interview, he said that safety regulations limiting consumption of fish had little meaning for Fijians and Gilbertese living on Kiritimati during the nuclear testing program: “The only warning we had before the test, was they warned the people: ‘After the test, don’t eat any fish!’ But you know, I’m from Kiribati. I love raw fish and this is the only dangerous thing after the test. They said: ‘Don’t!’ but I ignored them. I went to the Kiribati people and said: ‘Hey, raw fish, we’re not supposed to eat the raw fish!’ But they said ‘Oh, we’ve been eating it and nothing’s happened.’ That was the biggest mistake for them.”
As France conducted 193 nuclear tests in French Polynesia between 1966 and 1996, Maohi workers were often given the difficult, dirty and dangerous tasks.
Tanemaruata Michel Arakino was born on Reao, an island not far from Moruroa Atoll, site of 178 French nuclear tests (a further 15 nuclear tests were held at nearby Fangataufa Atoll). For 17 years, Arakino worked with the French military research unit responsible for collecting biological samples at the nuclear test sites, to determine the amount and spread of radioactive particles.
Working as a scuba diver, he also dove into the lagoon at Moruroa Atoll to collect samples of water, seaweed, and sediments, just hours after underground nuclear tests had been conducted in shafts drilled deep into the atoll.
Years later, Arakino told of the ways he may have been exposed to hazardous levels of ionising radiation: “In my job, I was regularly in the so-called ‘hot spots’ together samples from the ground and the sea for biological testing on Moruroa and Fangataufa Atolls and across all of Polynesia, as well as for the testing of foods coming from outside the country. I was in charge of a garden with contaminated earth that we brought in from Fangataufa itself. The Biological Testing Service wanted to know what happens to vegetables grown in contaminated soil. It is likely that while working in this garden and while diving to gather plankton above ground zero, I swallowed or breathed in radioactive particles. In no case did my senior officers inform me of the risks I might incur.”
In French Polynesia today, the lagoon at Moruroa Atoll remains contaminated by plutonium and other long-lasting radioactive isotopes. As they dismantled the CEP nuclear test site after the end of testing in 1996, the French military dumped more than 2600 tonnes of nuclear-contaminated material into the waters off Moruroa (2580 tonnes at a site codenamed “Oscar” and a further 76 tonnes at site “Novembre”). The basalt base of the atoll is fractured by dozens of underground nuclear tests, creating fissures that may allow the leaching of radioactivity into the marine environment.
In the Marshall Islands, Runit Island in Enewetak Atoll hosts a massive concrete dome which covers tons and tons of nuclear-contaminated waste. The radioactive legacy of US nuclear tests on Enewetak was buried under concrete in the mid-1970s, in a giant crater created by a nuclear blast. Today, however, the dome is cracking, leaching contaminants into the ocean environment.
In her 2018 poem ‘Anointed’, Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner mourns the damage to Runit: “You were a whole island once. Who remembers you beyond your death? Who would have us forget that you were once green globes of fruit, pandanus roots and whispers of canoes? Who knows the stories of the life you led before?”
In recent years, Pacific island citizens have played a crucial role in the development of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The treaty was adopted in 2017 at the United Nations over the objections of nuclear-armed and allied states. It proposes a global ban on nuclear weapons, framed in terms of humanitarianism, human rights and environmentalism. The TPNW also placed obligations on states to assist victims of nuclear weapons use and testing and remediate contaminated environments.
Japanese hibakusha Setsuko Thurlow gave the Nobel lecture in 2017, as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was presented the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to create the TPNW.
"We were not content to be victims”, Setsuko said. “We refused to wait for an immediate fiery end or the slow poisoning of our world. We refused to sit idly in terror as the so-called great powers took us past nuclear dusk and brought us recklessly close to nuclear midnight. We rose up. We shared our stories of survival. We said: humanity and nuclear weapons cannot coexist."
On 7 July this year, the third anniversary of the treaty adoption, Fiji became the 39th country to formally lodge its ratification documents with the United Nations. Ambassador Satyendra Prasad, Fiji’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, said: “We hope today we are giving further momentum to efforts to get the necessary 50 member states that are needed for the TPNW to come into force…The human suffering across the Pacific from decades of exposure to nuclear weapons testing remains one of the most painful legacies of our colonial past. Pacific Islanders have for generations suffered from health consequences that arise from the destruction and contamination of their ecosystems; and from the forced relocation from their ancestral lands to make way for nuclear testing”.
Fiji joins other Pacific states that have already signed and ratified the TPNW, including New Zealand, Vanuatu, Samoa, Palau, Kiribati, and Cook Islands. In contrast, the Morrison government in Australia is opposed to the TPNW, maintaining its support for the US alliance and extended nuclear deterrence.
75 years on from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Pacific Conference of Churches has joined religious leaders from across Australia, writing to Prime Minister Scott Morrison to call on the Australian government to act.
“Nuclear arms control agreements are expiring, languishing or collapsing”, they write. “We are heartened by the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Negotiated by a majority of nations, the new treaty champions collective security beyond nuclear weapons…Australia claims to support nuclear disarmament yet, to our deep disappointment, our nation remains outside the TPNW. As people of faith across Australia, we join together in one voice to urge the Australian Government to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.”
This article draws on “Grappling with the Bomb”, a history of nuclear testing and Pacific nuclear survivors by Islands Business correspondent Nic Maclellan.
By Nic Maclellan in Funafuti, Tuvalu
As leaders gather in Tuvalu for the 50th Pacific Islands Forum, Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine has criticised Australia’s reluctance to undertake a rapid transition from the use of coal and other fossil fuels.
“We’re discouraged and disappointed at the fact that Australia is still actively using coal for their own power generation, and it looks like that is something that is going to continue into the future,” she said. “That’s not helping the issue of emissions and we know they understand that.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrived in Tuvalu on Wednesday to attend his first Forum leaders’ retreat. Australia has announced a $500 million pledge of climate finance over the next five years (with funds simply rebadged from existing aid allocations). Despite this pledge, Heine has joined a number of leaders from vulnerable low-lying atoll nations – including host nation Tuvalu – who have been forthright in their criticism of the Morrison government’s ongoing commitment to the expansion of coal mining and exports.
Meeting before the formal summit, island leaders issued the “Tuvalu Declaration on Climate Change for the Survival of Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS).” The declaration supports “the UN Secretary General’s call for an immediate global ban on the construction of new coal fired power plants and coal mines and calls on all countries to rapidly phase out their use of coal in the power sector.”
President Heine was also critical of the Morrison government’s decision to end Australian funding for the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the global funding mechanism that provides loans and grants for adaptation and emissions reduction in developing nations.
The GCF is about to launch a replenishment round, to increase OECD pledges beyond US$10 billion. Despite Australia’s stated belief that some island leaders prefer direct bilateral climate funding, the Pacific Small Islands Developing States (PSIDS) and the Smaller Islands States (SIS) caucus endorsed the Tuvalu Declaration on Tuesday. This statement clearly welcomes “the significant role that the GCF plays in supporting developing countries in their efforts to address climate change. We call for a prompt, ambitious and successful replenishment of the GCF.”
US President Donald Trump has also refused to make further financial commitments to the GCF. RMI President Heine has asked Australia’s Scott Morrison to heed the call from islands neighbours.
“We’ve also heard that they’re pulling back from funding the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which is also very disappointing,” she said. “In the case of the Marshall Islands, we’re beginning to work on our adaptation plan, as sea level rise gets more serious. We know that it will impact the Marshall Islands in very serious ways, so we have to have adaptation which we call a survival plan.”
President Heine said: “In order to make that plan a reality, we need that assistance, we need the donor community to come up with the resources that will help us adapt to our situation. If we’re talking about raising parts of the Marshall Islands, that’s an intensive proposition. We know we cannot do it on our own, so the necessity of an organisation like the Green Climate Fund comes into play. That’s why I hope the Australian government will reconsider their position when it comes to the Green Climate Fund.”
Meeting Donald Trump
Last May, President Heine joined Micronesian leaders Tommy Remengesau of Palau and David Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) at the White House, in an unprecedented joint meeting with US President Donald Trump.
As the former colonial power, the United States has maintained Compacts of Free Association with RMI and FSM since 1986 and with Palau since 1994. But key provisions of the often-extended Compacts come to an end in 2023-4. The US freely associated states have been seeking a further extension of these funding, migration and services agreements.
President Heine said that the White House visit last May had been vital to gain presidential support for an extension of the US-RMI relationship.
“For us, basically that meeting was to get the US government to commit to start the negotiations for the Compact of Free Association for the freely associated states,” she said. “We’ve been talking with the US and with other officials along the way on getting that started. It has taken quite some time for decisions to be made. Now it’s been made. That was the most significant outcome of the meeting – nudging the US to make that decision.”
“It’s not just the Compact,” she noted. “It’s related to their interest in securing the region, because of the geopolitical issues that are emerging, one of which is with China. We know that’s partly the reason that nudged the US into making that decision to extend the Compact.”
The renewed engagement with the Compact states has been boosted by the geopolitical tensions between Washington and Beijing, amid US attempts to contain China’s political and economic rise. Even though RMI and Palau are both diplomatically aligned with Taiwan (and only FSM with the People’s Republic), there is significant economic investment from China in all three Micronesian nations.
President Heine stressed: “Right now, the percentage of our GDP that comes from China is so much higher than the US. It is telling us that the US needs to make the commitment to be there and set up businesses that would provide employment for our people. There are not enough jobs, so these are some of the things that the US has to make commitments to partner with us in economic development by establishing business in the country.”
Last week, President Heine and fellow Micronesian leaders met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the Federated States of Micronesia. Offering new security agreements with the Compact States, Pompeo stated: "Today I'm here to reaffirm the United States will help you protect your sovereignty, your freedom and your right to live in freedom and peace."
But many island leaders want to redefine “security” in light of the climate and development crisis that faces their homes. At the 2018 Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru, all leaders signed the Boe Declaration, which looks to an "expanded concept of security inclusive of human security, humanitarian assistance, prioritising environmental security and regional cooperation in building resilience to disasters and climate change, including through regional cooperation and support."
President Heine hopes that renewed US interest in the islands region will take account of these island priorities and this broader definition of security.
“For us, we’ve made sure that we don’t talk just about the security issues and military issues that they’re concerned with,” she said. “Our definition of security is expanded to include economic development – making sure that people have food on the table, so that they’re secure in their place, in their homes. Also, we’re concerned about health security and the health of our people, because there’s a high rate of cancer and other disease as a result of the testing.
“When we talk about security with the US, we say it’s all of them, it’s not just about military security. It’s all about these other issues that are important for the security of the Marshallese people. We don’t want the Marshallese people to leave the Marshall Islands in search of jobs because they are not secure in their own homes.”
The people of the Marshall Islands still live with the radioactive legacy of 67 US nuclear tests, conducted at Bikini and Enewetak atolls between 1946 and 1958. At recent Pacific Islands Forum meetings, President Heine has been seeking regional support for the clean-up of nuclear contaminants, especially from the Runit Dome.
Runit is a nuclear sacrifice zone established when the US military dumped radioactive contaminated materials in an old nuclear bomb crater on Runit Island in Enewetak Atoll. Decades after the nuclear waste was covered in a concrete cap, the dome is cracking and there is growing concern that radioactive isotopes are leaching into the marine environment.
“In respect of the Dome, we’re seeking a more comprehensive assessment of the situation,” Heine explained. “We do need to get a third party involved and do a comprehensive assessment of the whole situation – not just of the Runit Dome but also on other issues of contamination in our marine life. We do have fish poisoning on Kwajalein as a result of the run off from the dry-docking facilities of the military base.
“We want to have a comprehensive look at all of these so we know how to move forward. We have commissioned the National Nuclear Commission to come up with our strategy for justice, and that will be introduced into the Nitijela [RMI parliament] in the next two weeks.”
Last month, new research on radiation levels in RMI’s northern atolls was published in the prestigious US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Sixty-five years after the 1954 Bravo hydrogen bomb test, a Columbia University team led by Professor Emlyn Hughes found radiation levels orders of magnitude above background for plutonium, americium-241 and bismuth-207 in the top 25cm of sediment across the entire Bravo bomb crater.
The PNAS research papers also document measurements of cesium-137 in fruits from 11 islands on four atolls in the northern Marshall Islands. More than sixty years after the last test, contamination remains above limits set by international safety standards in some measured fruits. Cesium-137, present in the fallout, has a half-life of approximately 30 years and is readily absorbed by food crops, representing an ongoing health hazard for island inhabitants.
President Heine welcomed the PNAS research, but said it needed to be complemented by further studies. She believed that some people have heard about the new data, but it has not transformed their way of life.
“People are hearing that, but they’re still eating their traditional, indigenous food,” she said. “I’m not sure whether people have internalised that news. I don’t hear people saying that they’re not going to eat the sashimi or the fish, but it is a serious concern for us to look at.”
Micronesian neighbour Kiribati also suffered from Cold War nuclear testing by both the United Kingdom and United States. There were nine British atmospheric nuclear tests on Christmas (Kiritimati) Island in 1957-58. The UK government then allowed the Kennedy administration to use the military facilities for a further 24 US nuclear tests on Kiritimati in 1962.
To highlight the legacy of testing, RMI and Kiribati are currently discussing the organisation of a side event in New York in September, as world leaders gather for the opening of the UN General Assembly and the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit.
President Heine welcomed the support of fellow members of the Pacific Islands Forum – especially the Smaller Island States (SIS) – who have made nuclear contamination a standing item on their annual agenda.
“I think we’re getting that support,” she said. “We’re getting it from Kiribati and from other countries that have been impacted by nuclear testing. The rest of the Pacific have been very solid on supporting us, writing letters to the United Nations and the United States.”
She committed her nation to working on the Forum’s “Blue Pacific” agenda, including common regional issues on the ocean agenda, such as fisheries management, maritime surveillance and controlling Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing.
“We have such a big EEZ and we have only two patrol boats to patrol our area,” she laughed. “I often give the example that it’s almost like having one pickup truck with a policeman, patrolling the entire state of Texas! That’s the size of the Marshall Islands when you look at it. So, to have only two patrol boats, we know we cannot cover the EEZ and make sure that it’s secure. We need the fishing nations that work with us to help us in this area.”