Decoloyarning: What happened to Peace? Decolonising Pacifika land and sea

The majority of the media coverage of the 2023 AUKUS submarine deal has focused on the interests of settler-colonists. So whose perspectives and interests might flesh out a bigger nuclear picture that keeps the environment in mind? Decoloyarns was very pleased when this month’s author Katherine Aigner offered to write a piece on the Nuclear Colonisation of the Pacific.

After the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945, the Nuclear Colonisation of the Pacific persisted with the United States testing nuclear weapons on Bikini Atoll (Marshall Islands) in 1946 (tests continued until 1958) and continues with the recent decision of the Morrison and Albanese governments to sign up for nuclear submarines as part of the AUKUS pact. During this shameful history, the British exploded 12 atomic bombs in Australia (1952 to 1957 with ‘minor trials’ until 1963), set off hydrogen bombs on Kiribati and Kiritimati’s (Christmas) islands in 1957 and the French detonated 193 nuclear weapons in French Polynesia between 1966 and 1996. The word colonisation is apt here, because it is never the countries doing the damage that pay, rather that payment is placed on the bodies of First Peoples. The apocalyptic consequences for the environment and First Peoples of the Pacific has resulted in devastating inter-generational health problems.

Katherine recently attended three events in the Pacific and wanted to share the main ideas she took away, and encourage Decoloyarns readers to learn directly from Indigenous writers and activists. As Katherine points out, Australia needs to make a choice about whether to continue down the path of Nuclear Colonisation or take a different path involving peace, healing and decolonisation. Learning from Pacifica peoples is the first step for anyone interested in heading in a different direction.


In 2005 I co-made the documentary Australian Atomic Confessions, which documents the eye witness accounts of atomic ex-veterans as well as First Nations custodians who had experienced the British atom bomb tests in Australia. Many of those people have now passed away. Because of the documentary, I was invited to speak at two recent conferences: the Nuclear Connections across Oceania Conference held in Aoteroa/New Zealand, and the Environmental and Sustainable Peace, Social Justice and Creative Activism: a conference celebrating 40 years of Peace Studies at the University of New England (UNE) held at Armidale NSW. Addressing a similar theme, I was also eager to attend ANU Professor Ernst Wilhelm’s talk–The Power to Go to War.

What would it take for us to maintain a peaceful and nuclear free Pacific? And what can we learn from the legacies and impacts of the nuclear experiments by the colonists, in the Pacific? These were the questions that sprung to mind when attending these three events – all related to the Nuclear Colonisation of the Pacific. While colonial countries continue to push for nuclear options, Oceania is principally nuclear free because Pacifica populations have largely oppose it. (See for example, the landmark international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT; 1970), The Treaty of Rarotonga (1986), the Noumea Convention (1986-1990) and the Waigani Convention (2000)). These events offered a good opportunity to hear the Indigenous peoples' perspectives and to understand their ontologies.

The legacy and ongoing impacts from the nuclear cycle were the greatest concern at the Aoteroa’s Nuclear Connections Across Oceania Conference. Looming over the conference was the Japanese government’s decision to release into the Pacific Ocean at least 1.3 million tonnes of highly radioactive ‘waste’ water, a legacy of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant eruption. This release is schedule to start this year, 2023 and continue until 2050. Argued to be in contravention of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), who will take Japan to the International courts for this breech?

The proposed release is simply the latest iteration of the perennially unanswered question–how to manage nuclear ‘waste’ safely? Colonial countries are often negligent by abandoning former test sites to little or no long-term environmental monitoring and reparation.

The Runit concrete dome in the Marshall Islands, with over 100 000 cubic feet of US radioactive waste, from tests in the 1940s and 50s, is one, of many, examples. Increasingly inundated by rising sea levels, it is leaking. Which prompts the question: why are those who create nuclear waste not compelled to clean it up, or pay the medical costs of those who are made sick?

Pacifica bodies are no strangers to the problems posed by nuclear debris. Between 1960 and 1996, the 193 nuclear weapons tests in French Polynesia (with at least 41 being atmospheric), lead to ‘radioactive fallout from plutonium covering the entire French Polynesian territory’). A Marshall Island delegate noted that ‘the cumulative force of the tests in all of the Marshall Islands was equivalent to 7 000 times that of the Hiroshima bomb’. Many attendees are still experiencing the negative health effects from nuclear attacks, testing and production in the Pacific.

For example, a Tahitian representative sketched the effects on her family’s health consequent to the decades the Pacific was used by colonial powers as a testing ground for nuclear weapons. Since at least 1980, Nuclear testing has led to health issues for this family including:

i) thyroid cancer diagnosed in their great grandmother, grandmother, an aunt and their mother;
ii) breast cancer diagnosis for an aunt, and;
iii) their own diagnosis of leukemia in 2013, which required treatment while she was pregnant.

Although there is no official proof, stories like these are too common to be pure coincidence.

Our Australian taxpayer dollars may be complicit in the nuclear body count. The Power to Go to War highlighted how, unlike other democratic countries, the decision to go to war in Australia is held by one person alone. In liberal democracies, such decisions should be made by clear majorities of the Parliaments that are elected by the people. Is it correct that there is no parliamentary decision making process or debate? Should there be more accountability and reform?

The AUKUS agreement in which Australia will purchase nuclear powered submarines is another demonstration of the neocolonial proliferation and dangers of nuclear technology. There has been no public debate and the deal is opposed by former Prime Ministers from both major parties. Not only does AUKUS seek to merge the industrial, military complex and scientific capabilities of the western colonial powers, it puts Australia in the unique position of being the first non-nuclear nation to adopt nuclear technology for non-peaceful purposes. One wonders how Pasifika nations perceive Australian government pledges to work more closely with/respect the sovereignty of ‘our pacific neighbours’ given we are purchasing machines of war?

What does a liberal democracy such as Australia prioritise with our public funding? After a 6-page supplement about the AUKUS agreement in the Canberra Times (29/11/2022), the front page of the paper highlighted the dilemma faced by the Mayor of nearby Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Shire Council. He stated that they may have to consider closing the public library and pool, for lack of funds. While the Commonwealth does not fund the local councils, blatant realities are exposed, money for military will take away money from other public funds. What about more money to mitigate the overall impacts of climate change and to fund the transition to renewable energy - what are the priorities of Australian leaders? Are they governing for the People?

There is also the global increase in military ‘war games’ that threaten peace, marine mammals and the wider environmental impacts that also affect peoples of the Pacific. For example, every two years the US military (with other nations, including Australia) conduct the world’s largest ‘maritime exercise’ (RIMPAC) in Hawaiian waters. While not technically a war, they ‘detonate bombs, conduct live fire training, and sink ships’, which still creates a war-zone, destroying the environment and eroding Native sovereignty, in acts that epitomizes ‘the military’s colonization of Hawaiian land and sea’. The military also remains a leading contributor of greenhouse gas emissions.

Perhaps we could learn from our Latin American Neighbours. A highlight of the Armidale conference was Costa Rica’s Ambassador to Australia, Vargas Araya, who described the many benefits Costa Rica has enjoyed since abolishing its military forces 74 years ago: we live in a green democracy without an army and we see the fruits in education, public health and the environment.

Nuclear energy and armament has cast a long shadow over the Pacific. Hungry AUKUS also risks further colonising the academy, steering thousands of bright young minds into studies of nuclear technology, rather than renewables and caring for the environment and reparation from the impacts of climate change. Australians have the choice of who we want to be. Having had the privilege of attending these events, learning from Indigenous expertise, to better understand the ontologies of our Pacifica neighbours, the answers to these dilemmas seem clear. Rather than war, Australia could be focusing its efforts on healing the environment and creating better futures by working alongside our Pacifica neighbours to decolonise the land and sea, without generating any more nuclear waste.



If you are interested to learn more from our Pacifica neighbours, please come to To Hell with Drowning, an Indigenous-led conference at ANU 11-14 April.

You can see/sign Statements of Solidarity from the Nuclear Connections conference, and Peace conference here.

To support the Barngarla People’s fight to stop a nuclear waste repository on their Country (South Australia), see the public submission here (closes 28 March).


Image credits: This board was painted as a ‘gift for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and the decision-makers at TEPCO’ by Hanalei Swan, a 15-year-old eco-fashion designer and surfer who lives in Bali and loves the ocean. She has hand-painted a Surfboard in the theme of the Pacific Islands ‘that features the 16 native flowers of the Pacific Island Nations. It represents the tip of the possibilities to reclaim honor and respect for the vast power of the ocean and the entire ecosystem to determine what life will be like in the upcoming decades and beyond’. More on the board here.