Where to next for the nuclear-free Blue Pacific? A Pacific youth perspective

In early 1985, on the eve of his visit to Fiji, former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone announced that he will shelve Japan’s proposal of dumping nuclear waste into the Pacific Ocean. This came after strong opposition from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea of Japan’s earlier announcement in 1984 to drop a large amount of “low level” nuclear waste into the Pacific Ocean.

Thirty-five years down the line, the region yet again faces the same issue. Earlier this year, Japan announced that it will be discharging over 1 million tonnes of contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean within a set timeframe, prompting not only the Pacific leaders but also youths of the Pacific to revisit a legacy that is not well-known to many of us. In the same year when former Prime Minister Nakasone cancelled Japan’s “low level” nuclear waste dumping plans, the Pacific leaders drew up an important anti-dumping regime.

The South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty of 1985 (Treaty of Rarotonga) is undoubtedly one of our major regional security achievements. Despite the contending narratives between Japan and Pacific Island States of how this discharge of water will affect the future of the Blue Pacific, leaders have nonetheless taken to diplomatic channels, their concerns. A most recent one included the PALM9 Declaration where leaders ‘committed to pursue independent guidance to interpret the scientific evidence as it becomes available’ and the 2021 Forum Foreign Affairs Ministers Meeting in which they were ‘deeply concerned over the implications such a decision would have on the health and wellbeing of the Blue Pacific Continent’. Ministers also emphasised the critical role of the Forum as custodians of the Blue Pacific Ocean. This, however, has not seen Japan alter its already set timeline to discharge the water.

At a Pacific youth-led and organised conference on the ‘Crisis of Nuclear Dumping in the Blue Pacific’ (August 2021), youth leaders highlighted the serious generational and knowledge gap surrounding this issue. Young people of the Pacific have known next to nothing of the tragic history of nuclear legacies in the region. As a result of that lack of access to knowledge and stories from those who were there, they haven’t engaged until very recently. Perhaps an in-depth view into what we learn and how much we learn about such issues growing up might shed some light. Ms. Ariana Tibon from the Republic of Marshall Islands summarised this sad reality at the recent Blue Pacific webinar series. As a public information advocate for the new RMI National Nuclear Commission, and a grand-daughter of the survivors of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, she shared this powerful testimony— “Although the testing began in 1946, it was not until 2019–I repeat 2019, that the nuclear legacy was finally integrated into school systems. And so, growing up, I had no idea that my own family were test subjects in this. In project 4.1, which was a top-secret medical study, and that the test subjects for that were human beings. Those human beings were my family. And that’s how I became so dedicated to this work and realized that education is such an important role because many generations have missed this history, our piece of history. The generation before me, my parents’ generation, my grandparent’s generation. My grandparents were still toddlers during the time the testing happened, but they did not get a chance to learn about this in school. Nobody learned about Project 4.1 we didn’t learn about the burn files. We didn’t learn about jellyfish babies. We didn’t even learn about Runit Dome. I’d had no idea there was Runit dome. I even had no idea there was the Enewetak clean-up veterans who helped to create that dome to try to contain all the radioactive elements in Enewetak. I even had no idea there was two atolls that they did testing in! Growing up, I thought it was just Bikini, and I thought it was just the one bomb. I didn’t know it was 67 bombs”.

Before her testimony, the Forum Chair and Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama told those at the “Securing a nuclear free Blue Pacific’ event that there is “no question that the unresolved nuclear testing legacy issues in the Pacific continue to pose a clear and present danger to the livelihoods of the peoples of the Blue Pacific”.

It was just two and half years ago when I first participated in the Global Youth Forum on Nuclear Disarmament and the Treaty on the Prohibition of nuclear weapons, held concurrently to the Pacific Conference, hosted by New Zealand. As a 22-year-old, I was amongst only a handful of youth from the Pacific participating in this important forum. I still remember the words of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who delivered a keynote address at the outset of the conference through which she invited “Pacific countries to stand united in supporting and taking the Treaty of Rarotonga global.” On our youth side of the events, we discussed the key role that the Treaty of Rarotonga played globally and the Boe Declaration on regional security which reaffirms the importance of rules-based international order founded on the UN Charter. At the event, Vanuatu’s former Foreign Affairs Minister Ralph Regenvanu, told us that “the Pacific Island nations must continue to work in unity against the use of nuclear weapons for our good and, most importantly, for the good of our future generations.”

Given the current geopolitics stemming from our traditional and new partners, our Pacific Island states must take advantage of this by driving the nuclear crisis agenda, just like climate change. While climate change is an existential threat and a threat multiplier, the damage caused by existing nuclear waste in our Blue Pacific Ocean, combined with Japan’s planned discharge of over 1 million tonnes of treated Fukushima water will only exacerbate its impact, adversely affecting our fisheries and agriculture and thus our food security and livelihoods. The Forum Chair and Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama stated in the Blue Pacific Webinar series that “a nuclear-free Blue Pacific must remain our legacy and the total elimination of nuclear weapons must be the highest disarmament priority in the world.”

While the Blue Pacific narrative cements our Pacific values within the region’s growing geostrategic and economic significance, our leaders of tomorrow must be equipped with the knowledge of such legacies and equally be engaged through an open and intergenerational dialogue on matters that will continue to affect us in the future. An important question from youth to all leaders of the Pacific today is whether they will stand united in defending our oceans just like their predecessors as custodians of the Blue Pacific Ocean thirty-five years ago, against the dumping of ‘low level’ nuclear waste. This may be an important test of our Pacific unity in the 21st century given the Forum’s current sad situation. Our leaders have indeed placed a lot of effort to ensure that future generations are able to lead a truly sustainable Blue Pacific. However, given the generational gap, the knowledge gap, and the lack of open and transparent dialogues between youth and their leaders on such critical issues, the envisioned Blue Pacific future seems to be far from certain. To make this a reality, we must work together, to build together, the nuclear-free and resilient Blue Pacific that we want.

–29th August 2021- International Day Against Nuclear Testing.

About the author: Aneet Kumar is a law graduate and postgrad student in Diplomacy and International Affairs at the University of the South Pacific.

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