During the Cold War, between 1946 and 1996, the United States, United Kingdom, and France used Oceania as a laboratory for nuclear testing. The deserts and islands of Australia and the Pacific were perceived as vast, “empty” spaces, suitable for the testing of atomic bombs and thermonuclear weapons. More than 310 atmospheric and underground nuclear tests were conducted by the Western powers in their colonial dependencies or United Nations trust territories.
Debate over colonialism, racism, and ethnic identity was a central feature of this nuclear era. The policies of the Western powers promoted a “nuclear racism” against Pacific Islanders, based on a racialized hierarchy of “civilized” and “primitive” peoples. These notions of racial superiority opened the way for medical experiments on Pacific Islanders affected by radioactive fallout, without free, prior, and informed consent.
Beyond this, the radioactive contamination of land, water, and food had direct and indirect impacts on the cultural identity of Pacific Islanders. Cultural practices – from reliance on fishing and traditional root crops to the use of coconut oil in children’s hair – increased the risk of exposure to hazardous radioactive isotopes. The racialized hierarchy of the nuclear workplace also meant that colonial troops and local laborers were often allocated dirty, difficult, and dangerous jobs that increased their risk.
In turn, the long struggle for a nuclear-free and independent Pacific contributed to the creation of a collective sense of regional identity, as a defining element of contemporary Pacific cultural identity.