Nuclear and climate injustices: Kiribati

This is an extract from our report “Nuclear Weapons, the Climate and Our Environment”.

In 1954, the government of Winston Churchill decided that the UK needed to develop a hydrogen bomb (a more sophisticated and destructive type of nuclear weapon). The US and Russia had already developed an H-bomb and Churchill argued that the UK “could not expect to maintain our influence as a world power unless we possessed the most up-to-date nuclear weapons”.[1]

The governments of Australia and New Zealand refused to allow a hydrogen bomb test to be conducted on their territories so the British government searched for an alternative site. [2] Kiritimati Island and Malden Island in the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony in the central Pacific Ocean (now the Republic of Kiribati) were chosen. Nine nuclear weapons tests – including the first hydrogen bomb tests – were carried out there as part of “Operation Grapple” between 1957 and 1958.

Military personnel from the UK, New Zealand and Fiji (then a British colony) and Gilbertese labourers were brought in to work on the operation. Many of the service personnel were ordered to witness the tests in the open, on beaches or on the decks of ships, and were simply told to turn their backs and shut their eyes when the bombs were detonated. There is evidence that Fijian forces were given more dangerous tasks than their British counterparts, putting them at greater risk from radiation exposure.[3] The local Gilbertese were relocated and evacuated to British naval vessels during some of the tests but many were exposed to fallout, along with naval personnel and soldiers.

After Grapple X, the UK’s first megaton hydrogen bomb test in November 1957, dead fish washed ashore and “birds were observed to have their feathers burnt off, to the extent that they could not fly”.[4] The larger Grapple Y test in 1958 spread fallout over Kiritimati Island and destroyed large areas of vegetation.

Despite evidence that military personnel and local people suffered serious health problems as a result of the tests, including blindness, cancers, leukaemia and reproductive difficulties, the British government has consistently denied that they were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation and has resisted claims for compensation.

On the climate frontline

Like the Marshall Islands, the low-lying Republic of Kiribati is now bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change. Salt water washed in on king tides has contaminated the islands’ scarce freshwater resources. Pits that are used to grow taro plants have been ruined and the healthy subsistence lifestyle of local people is under threat.[5]

It is predicted that rising sea levels will further impact freshwater resources and reduce the amount of agricultural land, while storm damage and erosion will increase. Much of the land will ultimately be submerged.[6] In anticipation of the need to relocate its entire population, the government of Kiribati bought 20km2 of land on Fiji in 2014.[7]

The UK is set to spend £3.4 billion a year on Trident nuclear weapons system between 2019 and 2070. If Trident were scrapped, a portion of the savings could be provide to the Republic of Kiribati in the form of climate finance (see section 1.2.1). Scrapping Trident would also allow money and skills to be redirected towards measures aimed at drastically cutting the UK’s carbon emissions (see section 1.2.2) – action that Pacific island nations are urgently demanding.[8]

[1] N Maclellan, Grappling with the Bomb: Britain’s Pacific H-Bomb Tests (ANU Press, 2017), p 33.

[2] N Maclellan, Grappling with the Bomb: Britain’s Pacific H-Bomb Tests (ANU Press, 2017), p 35.

[3] “Addressing Humanitarian and Environmental Harm from Nuclear Weapons – Kirisimasi (Christmas and Malden Island) Veterans” (Pace University’s International Disarmament Institute, 2020):

[4] N Maclellan, Grappling with the Bomb: Britain’s Pacific H-Bomb Tests (ANU Press, 2017), p 214.

[5] M Bowers, “Waiting for the tide to turn: Kiribati’s fight for survival” (The Guardian, 23 March 2017):

[6] M Ives, “A remote Pacific nation, threatened by rising seas” (New York Times, 2 July 2016):

[7] “Kiribati buys a piece of Fiji” (Republic of Kiribati press release, 30 May 2014):

[8] M Walsh, “Pacific leaders urge the world not to accept the ‘living nightmare’ of climate change” (ABC, 23 September 019):