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Our little nation was never happy about nuclear testing in the South Pacific. Here's why.

Submitted: May 24, 2019

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Submitted: May 24, 2019



For a long time our little country wasn’t in the good books of the powerful United States of America. This was because of our opposition to all things nuclear and in particular nuclear arms. We refused visits of USA warships unless they confirmed weren’t armed with nuclear weapons. Big nations don’t like little nations telling them what to do, so they got the pip with us. In 1987 David Lange’s Labour government set up a nuclear free zone around New Zealand saying, ‘There’s only one thing worse than being incinerated by your enemies and that’s being incinerated by your friends!’ We’d had a guts-fill of the Unites States of America and France testing their hydrogen bombs in our neighbourhood!

Imagine the arrogance of both those nations telling the inhabitants of the Pacific Islands, as if they owned them, to ‘bugger off because we’re going to test nuclear weapons in your backyard’. Of course the areas were about as far away from where the respective presidents sat as they could get, making them nice and safe, bugger a few no-account Pacific Islanders! And for sure we didn’t like the idea of nuclear fallout wafting on the breeze down to our neck-of-the-woods!

Back in 1973 together with Australia, New Zealand took France to the International Court of Justice in an attempt to stop the nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll. We won but France thumbed their nose at the world and carried on regardless. So the court had no teeth! In response our prime minister, Norman Kirk sent two frigates with a cabinet minister aboard, to observe the next two blasts as a protest and to generate international support. Greenpeace was a thorn in France’s side too, so in July of 1985 a petulant France sent a couple of their agents to our largest city where Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior was birthed. They blew her up, in the process killing a crew member. The French might it sabotage, a French word to smooth over the reality that it was terrorism. The two agents were caught and convicted but France swung the big stick and negotiated imprisonment ‘in a more suitable area’. They got off!

In March of 1954 the USA tested their first hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll, in the Marshall Islands. Boom! But the fission-headed scientists made a miscalculation! They under-estimated the power of the explosion by two and a half times! Radioactive ash rained over 18 000 square kilometres! None of the Islanders realised the ash was radioactive and children played in it as if it was snow. Some even ate it! The USA conducted 67 nuclear tests in the South Pacific between 1946 and 1958, only stopping when strong international pressure ensued. (Or they were satisfied.)

It wasn’t until 1977 that the USA admitted fault and began a clean-up – 23 years too late! On Runit Island a 100 metre diameter crater remained after a 1958 test, so 4000 servicemen collected some 73 000 cubic metres of contaminated soil and dumped it in the crater. That amount hardly fits into a 100 metre crater, so they made a dome out of it and sealed it with 45 centimetre-thick layer of concrete.  As it was considered a ‘temporary fix’ the bottom and sides of the crater weren’t even lined! But the temporary fix became permanent, didn’t it!

After the testing USA generously granted the Marshall Islands the right to govern themselves! Hooray! But they had to sign a deal settling, ‘all claims, past, present and future’. Any wonder we don’t trust politicians! The deal has left the islanders with a toxic mess and the USA with ‘clean hands’! The fallout material was plutonium-239, one of the world’s most toxic substances with a radioactive half-life of 24 000 years!

The concrete dome covering the 73 000 cubic metres of plutonium-239-rich soil is cracking, the temporary fix is showing its age! The unlined crater holding the material has no integrity and remember, these atolls are formed from volcanic activity. But France have behaved no better! After the New Zealand frigate episode, they carried out underground testing, right up to 1996! They drilled shafts deeply into the volcanic base of Mururoa Atoll packing their version of plutonium down there. Toxic debris remains down there!

Both of the tiny Pacific nations, were assured that the tests were clean and safe. They tried to bullshit us too, but our soldiers had served in the occupation of Japan and had seen what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so we were rightly very concerned. There was then, and still remains, the question about the welfare of the people, Pacific Islanders, Polynesians, who have contracted cancers and leukaemia! Finally France acknowledged fault, promising compensation. But they welched, they paid only nineteen people out of the a thousand or so claimants! Anyway, what compensation is appropriate for someone who is dying? The Americans send aid to the Marshall Islands, USA-type food that causes the indigenous peoples further health problems such as obesity and diabetes! As if the impact on the people isn’t bad enough, there has also been a disastrous impact on their environment.

There are five kilogrammes of plutonium trapped in sediment at the bottom of the lagoons of Mururoa and Fangataufa, the test cavities still contain radioactive fission materials and 3 200 tonnes of radioactive material was dumped into the sea just a kilometre metres off  Mururoa Atoll. The atoll is in danger of collapsing inwardly, which could trigger a tsunami and likely release more radioactive material into the sea. The cracks in the dome covering the 73 000 cubic metres of radioactive material are beyond the scope that the local government to fix. But is it even fixable with no lining in the bottom? Radioactive ash was collected from the land areas, but a lot of it fell into the sea over the18 000 square kilometres!

Who do you think is responsible to at least make an effort to properly clean up these nuclear messes? I’ll give you a clue. It isn’t the people of the South Pacific!


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