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.