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What’s Past is Not Prologue: Nuclear Legacies in the Pacific

Patrick Quinn

Amidst the range of regional step-ups (Australia), resets (New Zealand), uplifts (United Kingdom), and pledges (United States), the relationships between larger and relatively smaller actors in the Pacific are commonly situated in the context of economic development, aid funding, and the adjacent provision of military and security pacts.

For the United States, this Pacific strategy largely depends on security arrangements known as Compacts of Free Association. These bilateral agreements establish grants for health care and education, while also allowing for the free movement of citizens between the US and freely associated Pacific Island countries. In exchange, these agreements afford exclusive military jurisdiction over these island nations, establishing the United States’ core strategic architecture in the region.

However, with these Compacts set to expire between 2023 and 2024, the US is being pressed to reconcile current strategic objectives with the legacy of its nuclear testing program in the region.

Negotiation for the renewal of the Compacts began in 2020 but have remained largely suspended up to and throughout 2022, with three countriesPalau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islandsdemanding increased action to address the consequences of nuclear fallout. The Republic of the Marshall Islands, in particular, has remained steadfast in its calls to address the long-standing health and environmental impacts of US nuclear tests. Just days before the Biden Administration’s new Pacific Islands Summit last September, the Marshallese government cancelled a planned third negotiating round. It cited Washington’s silence towards a July proposal calling for greater compensation and acknowlegdement of these consequences.

Between 1946 and 1958, the US conducted a total of 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands. In the space of just 12 years, the program resulted in a combined energy yield 7000 times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The infamous Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll, for example, remains the largest nuclear detonation ever conducted by the US. At an output of 15 megatons, it was more than double what had been planned. The detonation blanketed thousands of Marshall Islanders in radioactive ash, termed "Bikini snow’", and created the worst radiological disaster in US history.

At the time of these tests, the Marshall Islands were administered by the US as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. In 1982, the country signed Compacts of Free Association with the US, which have since seen assistance funnelled to the Marshall Islands worth approximately USD$661 million between 1987 and 2003. During the Compact’s second term (2004-2023), respective contributions totalled a further USD$722 million.

Following the provisions of the Compacts, the US declared the issue of nuclear testing and its consequences as long-since settled. To date, the only individuals it officially considers exposed to the effects of radiation were those physically present at Rogelap, Ailinginae, or Utrok atolls at the time of the 1954 Bravo nuclear test.

However, the legacy of nuclear weapons testing is not resigned to the pages of history. It remains an ongoing lived reality for the Marshallese and surrounding communities. Compensation agreements cannot reasonably account for the emerging weight of evidence that the consequences of nuclear testing have been disastrous. In the decades since, the region has seen cancer rates double, displaced people have been forced to wait decades to return, all while radiation still plagues the land and surrounding waters.

Nuclear waste now represents a further looming catastrophe not accounted for during the first Compact. Before abandoning the program, the US buried the contaminated waste generated by nuclear testing on Runit Island in the Enewetak Atoll. Approximately 3.1 million cubic metres of irradiated waste from these tests, in addition to nuclear waste relocated from Nevada, was dumped into a purpose-built hole on the Atoll before being sealed under a concrete dome in 1977.

This concrete dome remains a deeply unsustainable solution, with multiple reports emphasising the leakage of radioactive waste into the surrounding environment. Far from being a domestic problem alone, this leaking will result in the contamination of not only the Marshall Islands but the wider Pacific Ocean.

Such an event will, for example, devastate the major fisheries industry, which is of paramount importance to long-term food security and the economic stability of marine-based commodities in the region. Compared to the financial assistance provided through the Compacts, the fisheries sector accounts for approximately US$3 billion annually to Pacific Island economies, dwarfing any US aid to date.

There are, of course, strategic dimensions to these renegotiations. These islands were not only crucial in developing nuclear deterrence, but remain key to the strategic architecture of the United States today. The provision of the Compacts provides for a combined area of land and ocean larger than that of the continental United States. In addition to air and naval bases in Guam, the Kwajalein Atoll hosts a significant ballistic missile testing range. The regular tests of Minuteman III missiles, launched from the Atoll, are of vital importance for the United States ongong nuclear deterrence capability.

For the US to maintain its legitimacy as both a ‘preferred partner’ in the Pacific and a realistic deterrent to conflict, it is essential that these Compacts be renewed. Ironically, the credibility of American nuclear deterrence is sustained in no small part through their existence. The renegotiation of the Compacts represent an opportunity for both historical redress and a process which will deeply effect the future and sustainability of the Pacific for both large and small nations.

Patrick Quinn is a graduate of the University of Melbourne with a Masters of International Relations. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of any other entity.

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