- Grappling with the Bomb: Britain’s Pacific H-Bomb Tests by Nic Maclellan
Nic Maclellan’s Grappling with the Bomb: Britain’s Pacific H-Bomb Tests explores the little-known history of Britain’s nuclear testing program on Malden and Kirimati (Christmas) Islands in the late 1950s in what was then the British-controlled Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony and is now the independent nation of Kiribati. The book title is a play on Operation Grapple, codename for the British military operation that involved nine nuclear tests between May 1957 and September 1958 and exposed i-Kiribati (Gilbertese) laborers and civilians, Fijian soldiers, Māori and nonindigenous New Zealanders, British service members, and others to dangerous levels of radiation despite British claims to the contrary. In approximately 350 pages, the book brings together previously published work and new archival research and interviews with governmental officials, survivors, and family members to paint a multiperspective account of British nuclear testing, the health implications for those involved, and the lengths the British government has gone to since the 1950s to deny any causal links between the two. Maclellan’s work is impressive not only for its attention to the impacts of British nuclear testing on the lives of Indigenous Pacific Islanders and their families but also for what it reveals about nuclear testing within the larger context of Western imperialism, Cold War geopolitics, decolonization, and antinuclear activism.
Grappling with the Bomb is organized into twenty-two brief chapters, each focused on the connections of one or more individuals to British nuclear testing in Kiribati. Chapters one to three use British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, Marshallese nuclear survivors Lemeyo Abo and Rinok Riklon, and Japanese fisherman Matashichi Oishi to consider how the US-Soviet nuclear arms race, US testing in the Marshall Islands, Britain’s desire to develop nuclear weapons in the face of US secrecy, and international [End Page 627] antinuclear protest movements led Britain to develop and test its own nuclear arsenal, first in Australia and later in Kiribati. The chapters reveal how much British and American officials and their allies knew about the health and environmental impacts of and growing international opposition to nuclear testing in the region—and their decisions to proceed nonetheless. Chapters four to six consider the different yet related efforts of British Task Force Commander Wilfred Oulton, who oversaw the establishment of the test site and support facilities and the deployment of troops; James Burns of the Australia-based Burns Philp & Company, who opposed the tests for their potential effects on his company’s coconut plantations; and Harold Steele, a British pacifist whose unfulfilled dream of sailing a boat directly into the Kiribati test zone area inspired a generation of antinuclear activists. Together, these initial chapters reveal that, despite US and British efforts to deny the human and environmental impacts of nuclear testing, individuals and communities in the Pacific Islands, Britain, the United States, and beyond knew the dangers of nuclear testing and were willing to employ a variety of methods and forums to voice their opposition.
The remaining chapters spotlight individuals whose experiences are representative of a number of groups whose lives have been impacted by British nuclear testing and who have led efforts to gain recognition and compensation for their contributions. Among these are Fijian enlisted men and civilians Ratu Inoke Bainimarama, Paul Ah Poy, Ratu Penaia Ganilau, Isireli Qalo, Josefa Vueti, Pita Rokoratu, and Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama. These and other men went to Kiribati as part of the Fiji Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (frnvr), the Royal Fiji Military Forces, or in some other capacity and in many cases had no prior knowledge of the potential for exposure to dangerous levels of radiation during and after the nuclear tests. Several report that they wore scant or no protective clothing despite their close proximity to the tests and direct involvement in cleanup efforts and have since faced illnesses and fertility...