Talking Policy: Nic Maclellan on Nuclear Weapons Testing

While U.S. President Donald Trump once threatened North Korea with “fire and fury,” journalist Nic Maclellan, who has spent 40 years documenting the effects of nuclear weapons testing on the Pacific Islands, warns of the consequences of nuclear war. His book Grappling with the Bomb (ANU Press, 2017) is a history of Britain’s hydrogen bomb tests, beginning in 1957, on the “uninhabited” Malden and Christmas Islands, under the code name Operation Grapple. Maclellan documents the experiences of the servicemen, Indigenous communities, and women who bore the brunt of the U.K.’s nuclear tests, but whose stories are often left out of history books.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Why did Britain begin its Pacific Islands nuclear testing in the 1950s?

NIC MACLELLAN: In 1946, the U.S. passed legislation known as the McMahon Act, which banned the transfer of nuclear technology and nuclear secrets to other powers, including allies like the United Kingdom. The U.K. had been involved in nuclear testing since the U.S. detonated its first atomic weapon at Los Alamos in 1945, but when it was cut off from this information, Britain decided to embark on its own weapons program.

Because they couldn’t or wouldn’t test in the United Kingdom itself, the British looked for suitable real estate—vast, supposedly empty spaces—to test nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. They approached Australia, formally a British colony, and in 1952 the first British test was conducted in the Montebello Islands, just off the western coast of mainland Australia. They then conducted a series of atomic tests in the Australian deserts, at Emu Field and Maralinga. This was aboriginal land with Indigenous people living nearby. British and Australian service personnel, as well as the aboriginal communities, bore the brunt of tests conducted in the desert. (The area is contaminated to this day with plutonium and other radioactive isotopes.)

The United States tested its first hydrogen weapon in 1952, and the Soviet Union in 1953, so Britain wanted to test thermonuclear weapons as well. But Australia did not allow the testing of these more powerful weapons, due to concerns of pollution and growing public opposition to nuclear testing around the Pacific Rim. So the British turned to one of their colonies, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands—a series of island archipelagos in the central Pacific that today make up the independent nations of Kiribati and Tuvalu. The area was, like the Australian desert, seen as vast, empty space.

WPJ: Can you talk a bit about the racist rhetoric that surrounded the safety precautions for testing nuclear weapons?

NM: The Americans, British, and French shared the notion that these Pacific locations were “empty spaces,” and therefore suitable for testing. But the deserts, islands, and oceans were home to Indigenous communities. That these communities were nonexistent on military plans is an important part of the story, and Pacific Islanders say the only reason the testing could be conducted in the Pacific was that these were colonies. (The British governed Gilbert and Ellice Islands until the late 1970s, France still maintains its colonial status in French Polynesia, where it conducted 193 tests in the atmosphere and underground at Mururoa and Fangataufa Atolls.)

By its very nature, the colonial project was a racist process, with a disregard for the rights of Indigenous peoples living in the area. This was clearly articulated in the language of the nuclear testing program, which ignored the potential health hazards and danger of long-lasting pollution. Other researchers and I have discovered a lot of casual racism toward Pacific Island communities in documents from the era. One paper found in 1956 mentioned the need to set radiation standards, but it set different standards for “civilized” people (those presumed to wear boots, shorts, and hats) and “primitive” people (who did not fit that definition). According to the minutes in the official Colonial Office Archives, it was recognized that the “primitive” people might be subjected to levels of fallout far beyond the limits set by the International Commission on Radiological Protection, the governing body that established safety standards at the time.

There were many other cases, too, where colonizers conducted medical studies on communities that had been exposed to radiation. This began with survivors of the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki through the 1950s. The United States began a series of studies under the ironically named program “Project Sunshine.” The U.S. was aware that, after atmospheric nuclear testing, the radioactive isotope Strontium-90 spread around the world by the wind, so the program began to collect corpses to determine how much nuclear material was taken up by human bones and teeth. The British conducted a similar program in Australia and the territory of Papua New Guinea, collecting more than 20,000 samples from corpses.

WPJ: You quoted one scientist who asks whether it is illegal to “body snatch.” How unethical was the work?

NM: This began as an earnest study to understand the hazards of radiation on the human body, though these effects were well known since the days of Marie Curie and the discovery of radium. What was significant was that many of these studies were conducted in secrecy, without the informed consent of the participants, and the results were hidden for many years under the cover of national security. The lack of peer review and monitoring, which are necessary to scientific work, meant that doctors and scientists who might have started with good motives became more and more corrupt. At a conference in the U.S., senior people from Los Alamos and elsewhere talked about body snatching to get more samples. On Rongelap Atoll, which was heavily contaminated by U.S. hydrogen bomb tests, scientists and doctors began gathering teeth that had fallen out, but when they ran out of those they began taking good teeth from children.

Many Pacific Islanders and soldiers who participated in the nuclear tests feel as though they were used as guinea pigs. At the higher levels of the British military, there was an interest in seeing the hazards of radiation for military forces, due to concerns that a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the Western powers might expose soldiers to radiation. In the first British nuclear test at the Montebello Islands, an atomic weapon was placed inside an old warship, HMS Plym, which was vaporized in the test. They also conducted tests on soldiers: In the deserts of South Australia soldiers were ordered to crawl through contaminated dust and sand to see how much radioactive material had collected on their clothes.

WPJ: Your book focuses on the New Zealanders, Fijians, and Gilbert Islanders who were largely written out of the official histories published in the U.K. What role did the Pacific Islanders play in Britain’s nuclear program?

NM: During this period about 14,000 British soldiers came to build a military base including an airstrip that bombers could use to reach the test site. There were also hundreds of servicemen from New Zealand and Fiji. (Fiji, at the time, was a British colony, gaining its independence in 1970.) Many Gilbert Islanders and Indigenous Micronesians living on Christmas Island were taken offshore for the first tests, but were onshore for the later tests. They were also used as laborers for construction and unloading ships.

One Fijian soldier described how he was asked to load drums of nuclear waste onto a small log boat and dump them into the ocean. He was told they contained waste from nuclear fallout. I also gathered evidence of Fijians asked to do dangerous or difficult jobs like unloading a nuclear weapon from a ship. The Fijians often got the more hazardous jobs when they were working as day laborers.

During a test, in what we in Australia call “backs to the blast,” troops were lined up some distance from the test site, or on the deck of a ship, and at the point of nuclear detonation they sat with their backs to the blast, covering their eyes. To deal with the heat, sometimes they were provided with anti-flash gear or white suits, while other times they were shirtless. Sometimes they would turn around to witness the blasts. The Fijians I interviewed were in their 80s, but they all remembered vividly the nuclear weapon going off.

WPJ: How did you conduct your research?

NM: In the 1990s I, along with colleagues in Fiji, recorded the stories of a number of the Fijians who had gone to Christmas Island. For this book, I conducted interviews in the Marshall Islands, Japan, Fiji, and elsewhere. Most of the survivors are elderly and hard to track down. I interviewed a number of people at the New Zealand Nuclear Test Veterans Association, and at the Fijian Veterans Association, a colleague and I interviewed members, surviving widows, and their children. Many of the children have health problems that they attribute to the inter-generational effects of nuclear weapons.

WPJ: Has the British government done anything to help the survivors and their families?

NM: The official position of the U.K. government is that the tests were not hazardous for the vast majority of people. They do acknowledge that some people, particularly pilots who flew through the mushroom cloud to collect particles immediately after the test, were exposed to greater hazards. They also acknowledge that some of these people died as a result. But the government’s argument, even today, is that since the bombs were exploded in the air rather than on the ground, there was less land, soil, and debris that could be sucked up into the mushroom cloud, irradiated, and contaminate people in the fallout.

In the book we documented the increased risk of cancer and leukemia when people were exposed to radiation, cases of other significant health problems, and anecdotal evidence of children with health problems or miscarriages. The veterans attribute this long list of problems to the tests.

Many years ago the British government conducted two major studies through the National Radiological Protection Board. As epidemiological studies, they didn’t actually do tests on people. They instead looked at the rates of cancer and other illnesses among the cohort of British veterans who had been involved in the nuclear tests, and found no significant risks apart from an increased risk of leukemia over 25 years. But those studies have been criticized by veterans groups. A later medical study on the New Zealand cohorts, conducted by Professor Al Rowland and her team at a university in New Zealand, found significant levels of chromosomal translocations or genetic damage among the New Zealand sailors who participated in Operation Grapple. The publication of these results in medical journals gave hope to the veterans that their concerns were valid.

There has been a series of (largely unsuccessful) court cases on the issue. It’s a tragedy that, to this day, the British government does not recognize its responsibility. In a classic example, some British engineers who stayed after British testing finished in 1958 to support American nuclear testing on Christmas Island in 1962 have received compensation under the United States’ Nuclear Compensation Act [but have received none from Britain]. It is a striking example of the callous attitude of the U.K. government.

WPJ: Why is there more secrecy around British nuclear testing than the U.S. program?

NM: There’s much to criticize about the U.S. military, but there are systems of oversight and public accountability, such as congressional committees and freedom of information laws, which are, frankly, better than in Australia or in the United Kingdom. The British government, meanwhile, has a culture of secrecy that compromises the democratic discussion of these issues. For example, for this book, I sought access to files held in the British archives about Project Aconite, in which British pilots flew out of mushroom clouds during nuclear testing in Australia. But the files are not available to the public because of national security rulings—and this is 60 years after the tests. This is a matter of historic record, and the fact that some files are still closed is a sign of the U.K. government’s refusal to face democratic accountability. For many veterans, too, the fact that many health and medical records are not accessible, and key documents about levels of radioactivity are hidden, presents a major hurdle when trying to prove in a court of law or through another judicial process that they were exposed to certain levels of radiation during their military service.

WPJ: Was there public opposition to the testing at the time?

NM: From the beginning of the nuclear age there was widespread opposition to nuclear weapons. Even some of the scientists who were involved in the creation and testing of the first atomic weapon realized its enormous power. Compared to conventional weapons, nuclear weapons pose a long-lasting threat to human health and that of the land, ocean, and environment due to radioactive fallout. The 1954 Bravo test, noted for its massive scale and wide-ranging effects—one seaman died very soon after and the rest of the crew aboard the ship became seriously ill—really brought international attention to the nuclear tests. It sparked a range of cultural responses, including a dystopian novel by Nevil Shute, a British author based in Australia, called On the Beach, which turned into a Hollywood movie.

There was also widespread opposition from Pacific Islanders. At the time, none of them were independent; they were all colonies of the European powers, but even so they spoke out against the testing. In the book, we note some of the Pacific Islanders who sought international attention and support. After the Bravo test, Pacific Islanders petitioned the newly formed United Nations seeking an end to American nuclear testing in the region. Customary leaders and chiefs called for an end to the nuclear testing in the Pacific because of the impact it had on the people. Pacific Islanders are often portrayed as the helpless victims of the nuclear testing era, but they were actors in this process. Some joined the nuclear testing effort as soldiers, laborers, and other participants in the development of the U.K.’s nuclear arsenal,  but there was opposition as well as support, and Pacific Islanders spoke out to try and end the program.

WPJ: What are the long-term effects of radiation poisoning on the land in the Pacific Islands?

NM: In the Marshall Islands there’s extensive damage from Cold War nuclear testing. Recent studies conducted by Colombia University scientists in the Northern Atolls show that the area is still contaminated with hazardous levels of radioactive isotopes. These have traveled up through the food chain to coconuts, breadfruit, and other crops, so many people were exiled from their home islands and have not returned, even six or seven decades after the nuclear tests were conducted. The same has happened in French Polynesia, where the lagoons are still polluted with plutonium. There are sacrifice zones in the deserts of Australia and the islands of the Pacific.

WPJ: Has there been any change in the way states with nuclear weapons respond to public opposition?

NM: The nuclear powers pretend they don’t care about public opinion. The nuclear state keeps its work secret because it is aware that when people think about what’s going on, they will start asking questions about how and whether nuclear weapons can provide security. With the threats of “fire and fury” being made by U.S. President Donald Trump toward North Korea, and the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capability, it seems that there is a growing public awareness of the thousands of nuclear weapons still on alert. The use of only a small number of the 15,000-plus nuclear weapons in the world today could create nuclear winter, so there is a strategic interest in moving toward their abolition.

It’s the stated policy of five of the nuclear weapon states to abide by the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. But under Article 6 of that treaty, those states are obliged to commence negotiations for comprehensive nuclear disarmament, and such talks are not occurring. With countries using nuclear weapons to threaten one another in recent years, countries began negotiations on a treaty to end the testing, development, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons. In July 2017, 122 countries voted to adopt the treaty with one against, and 57 countries have ratified it. It is a major breakthrough and follows the bans on land mines and chemical weapons.

WPJ: What has been done to prevent this kind of nuclear damage from happening again?

NM: Many states shelter under the nuclear umbrellas of other states, and individual states have said that they can build security without relying on nuclear deterrents. For example, New Zealand in 1987 declared its land, waters, and territory nuclear-free. Australia, meanwhile, continues to host military facilities critical to the U.S. nuclear war strategy. Beyond this region, a number of countries have declared themselves nuclear-free, such as Mongolia and Austria, or given up nuclear weapons, such as post-apartheid South Africa, Libya, and several former Soviet countries. Nuclear-free zones have been established in Antarctica, South and Central America, the South Pacific, and Southeast Asia. There are proposals for nuclear-free zones in the Korean peninsula, Europe, and the Middle East, but with obvious resistance from the nuclear powers.

WPJ: Do you think Donald Trump’s rhetoric regarding nuclear war help or hinder the call for nuclear disarmament?

NM: I believe President Trump is speeding up the process of nuclear disarmament. The language he uses scares people and makes them think about the systems in control of weapons that could destroy humanity. Scientific studies tell us that a nuclear war between India and Pakistan or in the Korean peninsula would release both radioactive chemicals and burnt carbon into the air, which would not only kill hundreds of millions of people but also create a global famine. These weapons should not be used, and it’s up to citizens to say no. What I wanted to do in my book about the 1950s was show that there have been people around the globe recognizing the horror of nuclear weapons and saying no, and that it’s important for us to recognize that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Grappling With The Bomb shows that we don’t want to live with the radiological consequences of these weapons designed for genocide.  

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

[Interview conducted by Emma Russell]

[Photo courtesy of United States Department of Defense]

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