New Internationalist

Clouds Over The Pacific

Issue 97

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THE NUCLEAR ARMS RACE[image, unknown] Tests in the Pacific and Australia

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Clouds over the Pacific
The blasts from more than a hundred nuclear tests have shaken the Pacific, showering radioactive fallout on the islands and making some of them uninhabitable. Bob Hawkins reports.

France conducts its nuclear tests in the Tuamotu Group of French Polynesia because they are `geologically sound'. And it will not move its testing ground to France because it would be `too costly'. Strange but, true, if we are to believe what Paul Cousseran, High Commissioner in French Polynesia, told me a couple of years ago.

But Mr. Cousseran is not to be believed. Behind his polite visage one could sense the Gallic disdain of French officialdom to its own subjects and those who argue for self-determination in the colonies. The fact is that the French government was willing to expose defenceless Pacific Islanders to radiation dangers which it would never dare inflict on its own citizens.

It would be unfair, however, to single out France as the only villain of the Pacific nuclear tragedy. In one way, by their arrogant rejection of all protests, the French have at least shown an honesty of purpose - a purpose which includes radiating the fishing grounds of the Polynesian people; showering islands and continents (South America and Australasia) with radio-active fallout; inflicting disease upon Oceanian society by importing thousands of male military and technical personnel and so on.

Long before Charles de Gaulle's decision in 1963 to protect France by testing nuclear weapons on the other side of the earth, both Britain and the United States had latched onto the same idea: Britain by laying waste Christmas Island (the largest atoll in the Pacific) and three sites in Australia; and the United States revelling in above-ground fissionary fireworks at a variety of sites in the Micronesian islands entrusted to its safe keeping at the end of the Pacific War.

Why do the great powers of the world choose to see the capacity of the Pacific as infinite; as just a mass of empty water? To Pacific Islanders, in the words of Governor Carlos Camacho of the Northern Marianas `the sea is our farmland, our rangeland and our forest'.

The first and only atomic bombs detonated in anger - on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 - began their journey from Tinian in the Mariana Islands of Micronesia. The people of Micronesia played no witting part in that act, yet they were to pay sorely for their occupancy of one of the most remote and sparsely populated areas on the globe.

Between 1946 and 1958, the US detonated 66 nuclear bombs on the atolls of Bikini and Eniwetak in the Marshall Islands of Micronesia. Among those tests was the first hydrogen bomb, detonated on March 1, 1954. It was a day long to be remembered by the people of Rongelap Island, just to the east of Bikini. A few hours after that first H-blast radio-active ash began falling on Rongelap. Water tanks were contaminated; skin burns and loss of hair due to radiation poisoning was immediate. To come later were an outrageously high incidence of miscarriages, thyroid tumours in children (90 per cent of those under 12 in 1954 now have them) and cancer. Contaminated food and water have been blamed. In 1978 a US government survey declared Rongelap stillheavily radio-active.

The dispossessed Bikini people are now suffering the privations of having to live on a much smaller island. Conditions there are poor. An attempt by the US to clean up Bikini between 1970 and 1978 led to some Bikinians returning to their homeland. In 1978 it was found that the atoll was still dangerously contaminated. Those who returned can now anticipate further health problems because of exposure to radiation.

After signing the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the US restricted nuclear testing to underground sites in mainland Nevada state. Britain, before also being driven underground in Nevada by the partial test ban, made nine detonations on Christmas Island, four in 1957 and the balance in the following year.

In 1963 France took up where America and Britain left off, detonating 41 devices in the atmosphere before underground testing began in 1974. The sites of this French disregard for the safety of our planet have been Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls in the Tuamotu Group of French Polynesia. Although officially France went underground in 1974, new evidence suggests that surface tests in concrete bunkers are being conducted on Moruroa. In April 1979 High Commissioner Cousseran declared that French testing in the Pacific caused no pollution apart from that in the detonation chamber. Two months later, on July 6, six human `decontaminators' bored a hole in a bunker which had already been used for a test. One died immediately, another later and the rest were badly burned - all blasted by temperatures up to 1800 degrees Celsuis. Worse - high radiation flowed out into the atmosphere and the ocean.

Such frightening stupidity brings to mind President de Gaulle's cruise to the Tuamotus to watch a test in September 1966, described in Bengt and Marie-Therese Danielsson's Moruroa Mon Amour. Even for the General, the wind simply would not blow in the `safe' direction necessary for the test. Now as everyone knew, the General was a busy man with much work to do back in Paris. `The poor admiral was in a terrible quandary,' wrote the Danielssons. `If the bomb did not explode soon, the General would. Having weighed these two risks . . . he decided that the latter disaster would be worse , . , ' As well as French Polynesia, the Samoas, Cook Islands, New Zealand, Fiji and Australia were sprayed with radioactive dust - courtesy of the General's cringing admiral. But the General's schedule remained undisturbed, and the air around his pleasant home at Dauville 10,000 miles away remained unpolluted.

More information on the nuclear story of the Pacific available from Jeff Atkinson, Community Aid Abroad, 75 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy 3065, Victoria, Australia. The author is indebted to him for much of the information in this story.

Formerly editor of Pacific Islands Monthly, Bob Hawkins is now Australasian editor of the New Internationalist.

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Nuclear bomb testing in Australasia
Australia picks up the pieces

Nuclear bomb testing in Australia (1952-7) took place at a time when the island continent was still, de facto, a British colony, Her Majesty's man in Canberra, Sir Robert Menzies, enthusiastically went along with everything Britain's defence establishment demanded.

In all 12 nuclear bombs were exploded on Australian soil, the first in the Monte Bello islands off the northwest coasts in October 1952, the last in October 1957 at Maralinga in northwestern South Australia.

Australians in the 1950s, represented by a government more paranoid than Senator Joseph McCarthy, took the tests in their stride. 'Occasional questioners were assured that there was no risk to anyone. Even Sir Robert himself was probably unaware of the cavalier fashion in which Britain, like the United States and Soviet Union were conducting their nuclear experiments.

Britain's nuclear legacy really only started to unfold in the late 1970s. Here is a sampling of the evidence of negligence and suffering which has come to light:

'Extremely toxic' plutonium, under no security at all, had been lying buried a few feet below the ground alongside the airstrip at Maralinga in the South Australian desert since the early 1960s. (Seven bombs were exploded at Maralinga)

Other small quantities of plutonium, hundreds of drums of liquid waste, large amounts of laboratory equipment and contaminated vehicles lay buried for years at Maralinga, again without security. Worse, unspecified amounts of 'loose' plutonium were spread on the ground surface over an area of 200 hectares at concentrations up to 34 microcuries per kilogram of soil, (One microcurie per kg is regarded as a 'safe' level.)

Evidence from various sources indicates that up to 1000 people involved in Australian nuclear testing have had their health affected. By early 1980 it had been established that at least 50 ex-test workers were dead and many more had cancer.

The Adelaide Advertiser reported last year a 'black smoke' in October 1953 which came 'rolling through the mulga' enveloping 45 people of the Yankunyatjara tribal group of Aborigines. It was a day or so after a test 100 miles to the south. Jim Lester, then a child with that group, recalls having earlier heard a bang 'like a shotgun in the backyard'. He said that within 48 hours of the smoke, 'everyone in the entire camp was debilitated by uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhoea'. Soon after a skin rash 'like measles' covered their bodies. Within 72 hours healthy children were blind. Jim Lester ought to know. He is blind today.

On April 18, 1980, a previously unpublished government report revealed that on October 11, 1956 (after a test at Maralinga), a radio-active plume passed over Adelaide, the South Australian capital, with a reading of 95,000 counts per 100 seconds - 1000 times more than normal. Tests on sheep revealed they had 4000 times more radio-active Iodine 131 in their thyroids than before the blast. No evidence was in the report on human readings.

Despite assurances that the Maralinga testing area had been cleared during the testing period, firsthand evidence indicates tribal Aborigines were not cleared from the area.

There are other stories of a farmer's lemon trees dying after the passage of the 'black mist', of former test workers being warned to keep quiet about what they had seen at Maralinga, of Aborigines found wandering in the detonation area.

The full extent of suffering as a result of nuclear testing in Australia is never likely to be revealed. The Australian Government, a coalition of the conservative parties which ruled during the test years, is stubbornly trying to keep the lid on the story. But there are organisations, like the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association, Aboriginal associations, a variety of anti-nuclear and peace groups and church-based groups which do not intend to let the matter rest.


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