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The atomic history of Kiritimati – a tiny island where humanity realised its most lethal potential

Alexis-Martin, Rebecca (2019) The atomic history of Kiritimati – a tiny island where humanity realised its most lethal potential. The Conversation.

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Abstract

The toxic legacies of nuclear weapons testing have created many drawn-out instances of environmental injustice. Disregard for local residents was a universal feature of the planning process for nuclear weapons testing, as “empty” spaces were sought out and dominated. During the Cold War these last colonial outposts were portrayed as “wastelands” by the military establishment. They were then able to territorialise these spaces and make them their own, without opposition. However these test sites, including Kiritimati Atoll in the South Pacific, were home to indigenous people who were rendered invisible through systematic depictions as less-than-human savages. The British Grapple tests in particular were environmentally racist, detailing that a “…very slight health hazard would arise, and that only to primitive peoples”. At the time, there was limited and imbalanced interaction between the British atomic veterans and indigenous communities. Years later however, these two groups would be bound together through a shared desire to make sense of this contested toxic hazard. In 2018, a group of veterans revisited Kiritimati Atoll to commemorate their participation in the Grapple Y H-bomb tests that were undertaken exactly sixty years ago. The British atomic veterans met Kiritimati Islanders and gave gifts to the community. This paper presents interviews with each trip participant, and in-depth ethnography of this unique interaction between two groups who are seeking environmental justice. It explores how these separate but connected communities memorialise, make sense of, and attempt to make themselves ‘visible’ in light of this contested toxic hazard. In doing so, this paper reveals how the notion of invisibility extends beyond the materiality of a toxic substance, and includes the political rights of impacted communities. By tracing attempts by these communities in the UK and the Kiritimati Atoll to seek compensation for toxic exposure, this paper highlights how the same toxic exposure to ionising radiation can produce differing environmental justice outcomes.

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