The University of the South Pacific has a proud history of student activism. ATOM (Against Testing on Moruroa) formed in Fiji in 1970, and many of its founding members were USP students and academics. In 1975, ATOM organised the first Nuclear Free Pacific Conference, and the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific group was born.
Fast forward almost 50 years and nuclear legacy issues have seen a resurgence in the Pacific.
Pressure has intensified in French Polynesia to make compensation available to more people exposed to radiation during French nuclear testing there. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons finally entered into force this year. And the Pacific has joined in condemning recently-announced Japanese plans to discharge one million tons of wastewater from its Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station into the Pacific Ocean.
Amidst this, a new generation of student activists have taken up the mantle, raising awareness amongst their fellow students.
Wayne Kijiner is the current president of the Marshall Islands Student Association (MISA), an organisation of Marshallese students based at USP and the Fiji National University, who are working to raise solidarity around nuclear and other environmental issues amongst their peers.
First established in 2017, MISA4 the Pacific held its first on-campus solidarity march in 2019. “Since then we’ve been engaged with students and we’ve grown in numbers over the years. So that’s something we’re very proud of,” Kijiner says.
Most young Marshallese head north, to the United States, to do their tertiary studies. But Kijiner, who grew up on Likiep atoll, had done his foundation year at the USP’s Majuro campus, and at the suggestion of his lecturers, headed south, to Fiji, to do his studies in electronics engineering.
He was elected to head MISA this year, and says while COVID and the disruptions to academic and campus life have been tough, he has learnt from his predecessors at MISA. “Taking on the role this year, it was really easy because I had their support, the history that I learned from them, why we’re doing what we do, and especially support from other students here at USP.”
MISA has strong partnerships with other Fiji-based organisations, which has helped it amplify its voice and issues. A now-annual event on March 1 to mark Nuclear Survivors’ Day is well supported by organisations such as the Pacific Council of Churches, Youngsolwara, the USP Students Association and the Pacific Network on Globalisation.
The day honours the victims and survivors of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands in the 1950s. In a prayer at this year’s event which had the theme “We are not alone”, Pacific Conference of Churches Secretary General, Reverend James Bhagwan said: “While superpowers played their nuclear chess to a stalemate, the first people and sacred places of our Pacific were pawns, sacrificed and discarded – in the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Maohi Nui and Australia. “Today we join our hearts as wansolwara, one people of the salt water called Pacific, which has seen the most violence humans can inflict, through atomic and nuclear tests.
“The cry of our sisters and brothers from the northern Pacific is echoed in the east, in the west and reverberates over the coral atolls and up to the highlands.”
Kijiner says partnerships such as these have been incredibly important for mutual understanding and support.
“I had learned about Marshalls’ history at high school. But to my surprise, coming to Fiji, I had never heard of French Polynesia’s nuclear testing programs and Christmas Island’s, and other Pacific regions used for testing grounds. This was new to me. And I was very surprised to hear about it. So my thinking was, so if I don’t know about their history, what are the chances here that they know about my history?”
Coming to Fiji was a “huge culture shock” Kijiner says. “I can see a lot of similarities, but there’s also a lot of differences as well. I realised that, despite those differences, those similarities are much stronger; the fact that we’re all connected by the same ocean, that blows my mind, and Fiji’s colonial history and also Marshalls’ colonial history.
“In my view, it is very important to keep regional solidarity. Being Pacific Islanders, going to the international global political stage, solidarity plays a huge role when we’re talking about issues we’re facing in the region.
“Having strong voices, standing up together, and raising our concern to the international community, or the global politics, it shows a stronger stance.”
Similarly, he believes in the power and importance of student activism.
“I think being the younger generation and the upcoming leaders in the region, it is vital that students are involved in these issues, because in the end, we’re going to inherit these issues if they’re not resolved now. And not just that, but we have to have a say in our future as well.”
MISA has been running a strong awareness campaign around the Runit dome. The concrete dome caps contaminated soil and debris left from the US nuclear test program between 1948 and 1958 on Enewetak and Bikini Atolls. There are concerns the dome is now leaking; a 2013 US Department of Energy report found that soil around the dome was more contaminated than its contents.
“The way we see it, that dome is a ticking time bomb,” says Kijiner. “We want the US to clean it up. That’s all we ask. The risk of having that radioactive material going back into the ocean, we feel like it’s very high, it’s barely two meters above water with continuing sea level rise.”
One of MISA’s campaign themes is “My fish is your fish”. “[It’s] the concept that we’re all connected by the ocean, that my fish is your fish,” says Kijiner. “Our views on nuclear legacy and climate is that these are basically two sides of the same coin. So, if for us, if climate change continues to occur, that will have severe effects on Runit dome, which is filled with all this radioactve waste from the testing.
“If that dome ever comes undone, we say that none of us, not one of us is safe in the Pacific, being that we’re all connected by the ocean.”
Kijiner is due to finish his degree this year and return to the Marshall Islands, where he hopes to be able to use his qualifications to work in the energy sector. He says while COVID and restrictions have made it a tough year, “a long time inside the rooms and inside our halls of residence”, it has taught him resilience. He is excited about going home, but plans to remain active in the important environmental and humanitarians issues he has been engaged with while at university, while passing on the baton to the student leaders that come after him.