The Devastating Legacy of British and American Nuclear Testing at Kiritimati (Christmas) and Malden Islands

Teeua Tetua was a child during the British nuclear weapons tests, known as Operation Grapple, on the Kiritimati (Christmas) and Malden Islands, then under British colonial control. During one test she remembers gathering on the tennis courts in her village in the middle of the night. “The people were really afraid,” she recalled. The British authorities gave them blankets and some eye protection, “but not enough glasses for everyone.”

When the countdown began, everyone was instructed to hide under the blankets and cover their eyes.

“The babies were crying because they don’t like the blanket and some kids ran away from their families and their eyes were blinded because the light was so strong,” she said in an interview. She described the blast as very hot and so loud that “people tried to put their fingers in their ears.” When they returned to their houses, glass bottles were broken. The tests caused considerable anxiety: “We felt uncomfortable every day.”

In addition to the some 500 indigenous I-Kiribati people on Kiritimati island, now part of the Republic of Kiribati, 43,000 military and civilian personnel from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, the United States and Fiji participated in the total of 33 U.K. and U.S. nuclear weapons tests in and around Kiribati between 1957 and 1962.

Two new reports from Pace University’s International Disarmament Institute (one about Kiribati and the other focused on Fiji) detail the humanitarian, human rights and environmental impacts of the Kiritimati and Malden Island nuclear weapons tests. The reports also show how the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), recently adopted by 122 governments at the United Nations, offers a groundbreaking framework for assisting victims and remediating environments contaminated by nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific. (Read Just Security’s summary of the treaty here).

Tetua, president of the Kiritimati Association of Cancer Patients Affected by the British and American Bomb Tests, has identified 48 survivors who experienced the tests first hand, as well as 800 descendants of survivors. Members of the association report numerous health problems, which they attribute to the testing, including blindness, hearing problems, cancers, heart disease and reproductive difficulties. They also report that their children and grandchildren have suffered similar illnesses. Survivors are “worried about the disease in their bodies,” Tetua said.

In 2015, Kiribati’s permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador Makurita Baaro stated, “Today, our communities still suffer from the long-term impacts of the tests, experiencing higher rates of cancer, particularly thyroid cancer, due to exposure to radiation.”

There is a small hospital and three clinics in Kiritimati. However, survivors have found the facilities inadequate for treating the diseases they attribute to the testing, particularly cancer. Government officials say that people needing cancer tests and treatment have to go to other countries, like New Zealand.

According to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), the 1.8-megaton Grapple X test on Nov. 8, 1957, produced an unexpectedly severe shockwave that “demolished buildings, equipment and infrastructure.” Credible reports indicate that rain following the 2.8-megaton Grapple Y test, on April 28, 1958, dispersed fallout over the island and on ships offshore.

In April 2018, the heads of the New Zealand and Fiji test veterans associations wrote an open letter to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London, calling on the British government to “provide compensation, medical support and environmental remediation to all people affected by Operation Grapple.”

The UK Ministry of Defense maintains that, “Almost all the British servicemen involved in the UK nuclear tests received little or no additional radiation as a result of participation.” However, veterans and civilians, who lived on Christmas Island during the tests, maintain they were exposed to the negative health effects of the heat and ionizing radiation of the nuclear tests. This is supported by documentary evidence released from British official archives, as well as independent medical research, reviewed in the new International Disarmament Institute reports.

A 2008 cross-party inquiry into Operation Grapple by members of the U.K. Parliament, led by John Baron (Conservative, Billercay) and Dr. Ian Gibson (Labour, Norwich North), “heard clear personal testimony that makes us question whether adequate radiological safety standards were followed for the tests.”

Baron said the inquiry “saw little evidence that fallout and the dangers from ingested radioactive particles were taken seriously…. Servicemen were free to move around the island, drinking local water, eating local fruits, bathing in the lagoons and breathing in dust, all of which could have been contaminated. That is worrying, because ingested radioactive particles from fallout can remain in the body and continue to harm for many years.”

Suppression of information by the U.K. and U.S. governments has contributed to survivors’ distress, many of whom long for recognition.

“If you hurt someone you should help them, because we are human beings,” Tetua said. “It should be known by the world, the cruel things that have been done.”

She said that there are few systems in Kiritimati for archiving and disseminating information about the impact of the nuclear tests and the potential health risks for those who may have been exposed to radiation. Association members have called for a monument in Kiritimati memorializing the suffering caused by the nuclear testing.

Fijian soldiers and sailors were treated with even less regard than the British and New Zealand service personnel. According to a new book on Operation Grapple by the journalist Nic Maclellan, they were “often allocated dirty, difficult or dangerous tasks,” subjected to racial discrimination, paid less than British soldiers and received limited R&R leave. Paul Ah Poy, president of the Fiji Nuclear Veterans Association, said that while posted to Christmas Island, he “never saw any protective gear at all’ and was “never issued with a badge to measure radiation.” He and many other Fijian veterans supplemented their meals by catching fish, lobsters and crabs, which they now fear were contaminated by the tests.

Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, a distinguished military officer who later served as Fiji’s  first president following independence from Britain, visited Malden Island and witnessed the 1957 U.K. Orange Herald test. According to Maclellan’s book, Ratu Penaia’s feet became “very hot” with radioactive contamination and his legs began to swell. He died of leukemia in 1993; two of his children reported having fertility problems.

The lower standard of protection applied to Fijian soldiers, airport workers and even certain dignitaries, was indicative of a racism that also pervaded the U.K. government’s attitude toward the I-Kiribati civilians living on the island. A U.K. Operation Grapple planning meeting determined that “only very slight health hazard to people would arise, and that only to primitive peoples.”

Kiritimati and Malden Islands are sites of great biodiversity. Kiritimati is the largest coral atoll on earth and has a large lagoon and reefs that are known worldwide by sports fishing enthusiasts for their abundance of bonefish, which spawn in the area. Kiritimati, and its lagoon islets, host a population of 6 million birds.

Moreover, as illustrated by the work of late poet and social theorist Teresia Teaiwa, indigenous conceptions of the environment in the Pacific see the land, wildlife, plants and waters as more than simply a backdrop for human life or its instrumental uses for people. The environment has an intrinsic and even sacred worth to the people who live there.

There has never been a sufficiently comprehensive, public, and independent analysis of the environmental impact of nuclear testing at Kiritimati, nor Malden Island. The scale of contamination and its potential long-term impact are in dispute.

Nevertheless, there is extensive evidence that the tests killed and maimed wildlife and damaged vegetation. An official report by U.S. military observers of the 1957 Grapple X test recorded visiting the southeastern point of Christmas Island after the explosion: “Timber and debris thrown up onto the beach were burning with a great deal of flame. … Birds were observed to have their feathers burnt off, to the extent that they could not fly. Dead fish were reported to have washed ashore.”

There is a long history of civil society activism on nuclear issues in the Pacific region, notably the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement. The Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC), a major backer of the NFIP, held a meeting of nuclear weapons-testing survivors in Tarawa, Kiribati, in 2005. Reverend Baranite Kirata of the Kiribati Protestant Church lamented that the commandment to love one’s neighbor was “ignored by those who tested weapons of mass destruction in the Pacific. The people of the Pacific continue to seek the truth in relation to the health and environmental impacts of nuclear testing.”

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has an extensive network of partner organizations in the Pacific region, building on the NFIP movement. It received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its advocacy to achieve the TPNW. The victim assistance and environmental remediation provisions were key priorities for ICAN during the negotiations. (Read an account of ICAN’s work published by Just Security here).

The TPNW frames nuclear weapons as an affront to humanity and acknowledges the humanitarian and environmental harm of use and testing, including the disproportionate impact on women and girls and indigenous peoples. In addition to banning nuclear weapons, the TPNW obliges states that join it to address the harm inflicted on people and the environment from nuclear weapons use and testing.

The TPNW places especial responsibility on states that have used or tested nuclear weapons, should they eventually join the treaty, to assist affected states. However, since such governments have boycotted treaty negotiations and have so far offered little to no assistance to victims and affected communities, the treaty frames the harm caused by nuclear weapons as an affront to humanity as a whole.

Therefore, Article 7 expands the circle of responsibility to all members of the treaty, which are required to cooperate and provide “technical, material and financial assistance” to affected states. The TPNW also calls on the UN system, the Red Cross and civil society to help. As one delegate put it during the negotiations, “if a car hits me walking across First Avenue and drives away, I hope you don’t wait for the perpetrator to call the ambulance before giving me help.”

Kiribati signed the TPNW in September 2017, but has yet to ratify it. Fiji and New Zealand are both signatories; the U.K. and the U.S. boycotted the treaty negotiations. Palau became the first government in the region to ratify it on May 3. 

About the Author(s)

Matthew Bolton

Director of the International Disarmament Institute and Associate Chair of Political Science at Pace University in New York City Follow him on Twitter (@politicalmines).