APEC Silence: Fukushima and Half-Century Holocaust

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Photo: AP President Barack Obama at APEC

BY BEVERLY ANN DEEPE KEEVER – President Obama and leaders of 20 regional nations meeting here this week have thus far been silent on the economic havoc of Fukushima’s continuing nuclear disaster that, in turn, evokes the lingering legacy of a half-century, pan-Pacific holocaust.

That half-century holocaust traversing the region began when the U.S. launched in 1946 its first Pacific nuclear-weapon test north of the equator and the French ended their experiments 50 years later in 1996 in the South Seas.


This pan-Pacific holocaust unleashed a total of 312 known nuclear weapons detonated experimentally by the U.S., British and French governments with a combined yield of about 177.55 million tons of TNT. That’s an energy yield equivalent to 11,837 Hiroshima-size bombs spewed over 50 years.  In addition, the Soviets dumped nuclear waste into the Pacific Ocean. This slow-motion holocaust convulsed the region that Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan had so optimistically in 1521 named Mar Pacifico—the Pacific.

The legacy of that holocaust lingers, perhaps for centuries and across generations.  Most of these experiments were laced with plutonium, one of the planet’s most deadly substances with a radioactive existence of half a million years that may be hazardous to humans for at least half that time.

Most Pacific tests were launched in the atmosphere or underwater. These shot radioactive mist and snow-flake-like particles high into the heavens and around the planet, landing on peoples and soils where it could be absorbed or inhaled for decades and will continue as hazards for a near-eternity.

Fukushima’s disaster this spring calls up this uniquely cataclysmic socioeconomic and environmental upheaval that transformed the Pacific islands whose governments are excluded from the roster of the 21 big-money nations comprising APEC—the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation organization assembling here this week.

One authoritative study states that fallout and other residual radioactivity from atmospheric nuclear testing by all nations have caused or will cause through infinity an estimated 3 million premature cancer deaths. That number is nearly five times the 617,379 U.S. servicemen killed in World War I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War combined.

The Holocaust at Hiroshima

The atomic-bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 releasing the energy yield equivalent to that of 15,000 tons of TNT stunned the world and revealed a holocaust in the original Greek meaning of the word—to burn completely. Within a millionth of a second, the “Little Boy” A-bomb detonated above Hiroshima and created an inferno hotter than that at the core of the sun–about 70 million degrees Centigrade. The heat was absorbed by one person waiting outside a bank and caused his or her silhouette to be imprinted into the concrete wall of the building just before the human was incinerated.

Ten months after A-bombing ended World War II, the U.S. began conducting nuclear-weapons experiments.  From 1946 to 1962, the U.S. detonated 86 nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands, the Pacific waters and at Johnston Islands—only 800 miles south of Hawaii.  Over 16 years, these 86 bombs yielded the explosive force equal to 8,580 Hiroshima-size bombs—or l.4 weapons a day.

The British government during 1957-1958 conducted nine atmospheric tests yielding the equivalent of about 12 million tons of TNT and the French detonated 193 nuclear weapons  yielding the equivalent of about 13.5 million tons beginning in 1962 and ending on Jan. 27, 1996, according to data recently compiled by University of Hawai`i botany professor Mark Merlin and graduate student Ricardo Gonzalez.  They note that the planning and testing were conducted without the consent of the peoples who lived on or used the islands—a medical must-do laid down at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.

Radioactive Racism

The A-bombing of Hiroshima ignited a ferocious nuclear-arms race.  Within 11 years four other nations had proudly declared themselves as nuclear-weapons powers—the Soviets, Britain, China and France. Mao Tse-Tung explained a prime reason: “If we are not to be bullied in the present-day world, we cannot do without the bomb.” These leaders neglected to collect data on the nuclear-generated menace to humans and the environment or to make public what they did gather.  Instead they issued deceptive or outright false assurances of safety.

In addition, as scientist Arjun Makhijani notes, “The main sites for testing nuclear weapons for every declared nuclear weapons power are on tribal or minority lands.”  Nuclear-bomb testing with its a disproportionately damaging impact on indigenous and colonized peoples resulted in what might be labeled radioactive racism, or the subordination of one race or ethnic group by another through nuclear-related institutional, military and political policies or cultural and ideological beliefs.

Within 24 hours of the A-bombing of Hiroshima, according to historian Ronald Takaki, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin gathered five leading Soviet nuclear scientists and ordered them to catch up with the U.S. “in the minimum of time, regardless of cost.”  Four years, one month and 16 days later, on Sept. 23, 1949, President Truman announced that the Soviets had successfully exploded their first atomic bomb; four years later they detonated the world’s first hydrogen explosion. White ethnic Russian leaders, who condemned religions, conducted most experiments at the Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan, where it adversely affected the native Kazakhs–a mix of Turkic and Mongol nomadic tribes who are predominantly Muslim.

Like the Soviets, the great land mass of China enabled its leaders to conduct nuclear tests within their own borders but they did so in an area populated by an ethnic minority.  Only 890 miles southeast of the Soviet’s Kazakhstan site, the Chinese built their only—and the world’s largest–site of the Lop Nur Nuclear Weapons Test Base in the homeland of the Uighurs, a Turkic, largely Islamic group that is subordinate to the dominant Han Chinese.

The British conducted their first atomic tests on the lands of the aboriginal people in South Australia that remain plutonium polluted today.  But to test its far more destructive hydrogen weapons, the British agreed to move to their isolated colonies of the islands of Malden and Christmas, now called Kiritimati, where they were assisted by hundreds of servicemen from Fiji, which they also ruled. Decades later many Fijians report medical problems for them and in some cases for their wives and offspring.

A First-Person Holocaust

Paul Ahpoy, 75, a bushy-bearded Fijian with pockmarked skin, recounts the personal holocaust he experienced at Christmas Island 53 years ago and its legacy that continues to haunt him.

When he was 21, he recalls, he first traveled to Christmas Island in 1956 as part of Fiji’s naval contingent serving under British command.  A year later, he witnessed three hydrogen-bomb tests, took a brief leave, and returned to witness another four tests in six months. During his service, he says, he was issued no protective clothing or radiation-measuring devices and thus he and about 285 other Fijian soldiers and sailors were used as “guinea pigs” during the Christmas Island tests.

For the last dirty-bomb test of about two million tons in April 1958, he and tens of others at 7 a.m. leaped from landing craft and were ordered to sit on the beach.  When the bomb dropped, he recalls in an oral history published by the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre, “immediately I could see the flash of white light through my closed eyes and the palms of my hands.”

At 8:05 a.m., Paul was ordered to stand up and turn around.  “First thing I saw was a big new sun,” he recounts.  “Then slowly it turned into a giant ice cream cone with white cream dripping over its side.  Then into a giant mushroom cloud.”  He remembers, “The poor sea birds flew into what was left of the trees or the side of the buildings, as most were blind.”  Again ordered to sea, he helped to roll overboard 44-gallon drums of nuclear waste that were entombed in the ocean about five miles beyond shore.

Paul soon began experiencing health problems that he blames on the testing.  “In 1960 some tufts of my hair began to fall off and fingernails.  My gums started bleeding and teeth got loose.”  He has developed a rare, recurring skin disease that prompted a doctor to remove 59 round growths from under his skin all over his body.  His wife has had three miscarriages; his second daughter was born retarded and died after 42 months.  “My son is sterile,” he says, “and I fully understand that I will never have a grandchild.”  Some veterans also became sterile, he recalls, and “others died of leukemia or blood poisoning and other strange diseases.”

Like the Soviets, France started its road to nuclearization early. Two months after Hiroshima, the French provisional government created a commission to give high priority to nuclear research.  The French began nuclear weapons-related testing in the South Pacific in 1966 by launching pure plutonium fission devices into the atmosphere at uninhabited Mururoa atoll, about 750 miles southeast of Tahiti. One test spewed radioactivity to all islands to the west, including Western Samoan—2,000 miles away—Fiji and Cook Islands.  Two years later at nearby Fangataufa, the French detonated their first true hydrogen weapon, yielding a 2.6-million-ton equivalent of TNT, that reportedly left the atoll so contaminated that it was declared off-limits to humans for six years.  France had started its first experiments—pure plutonium fission devices launched in the atmosphere–in its colony of Algeria until that country gained its independence in 1962.

France conducted 44 atmospheric tests in the Pacific by 1974. It ended them after being condemned by French Polynesians plus the United Nations General Assembly and others internationally and being sued by New Zealand and Australia in the World Court for polluting their national territories.  France then turned to underground testing at these fragile Pacific atolls.

New Zealand and Australian monitoring stations reported an elevated rise of fallout—especially in milk—in their countries and throughout the Pacific Islands. French technicians complained that nuclear waste had been dumped near Mururoa, which was then swooshed around by several cyclones; 44 pounds of plutonium had been jettisoned and thinly covered, enough “to exterminate the whole population of French Polynesia,” of about 160,000 inhabitants, according to Swedish scientist Bengt Danielsson.

Plutonium-laced Ironies

Mother Nature also practices racism by discriminating more harshly against persons with darker pigmented skins or the chocolate-colored eyes typified by Pacific Islanders.  Through a quirk of nature, darker colors absorb heat more deeply and readily—and with more severe results—than do lighter hues.

Because of the global radioactive menace caused by their atmospheric tests, the U.S., Soviets and British signed in 1963 the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits nuclear-weapons testing in the atmosphere, underwater or in outer space—the kind of experiments that the Pacific region endured far more than any other area under U.S. jurisdiction.

Ironically, nearly seven decades after Truman and Stalin sparked the nuclear-arms race, Obama and the Russians are agreeing to reduce their nuclear arsenals and trying to persuade other nations to avoid building them.

Bitterly ironic also is the finding in a report titled “The Forgotten Guinea Pigs” issued by a U.S. House oversight subcommittee.  The report concludes, “The greatest irony of our atmospheric nuclear testing program is that the only victims of the U.S. nuclear arms since World War II have been our own people.”  In its conclusion, the report mentions the Pacific Islanders—but only in an obscure footnote.