Kiritimati is a tiny atoll at the heart of the Pacific Ocean. It is also known “Christmas Island” and forms a part of the larger nation state of Kiribati – an archipelago that stretches horizontally across the Pacific Ocean. Kiritimati has a population of approximately 6500 people who live across the villages of Tabwakea, London, Banana and Poland. To visit, you would never consider that this small island was once an epicentre of British and American nuclear weapon testing during the Cold War. However, 33 nuclear weapon tests were detonated around Kiritimati from 1957 to 1962. These nuclear weapon tests have had cultural, social and health consequences for both nuclear test veterans and islanders alike.

Kiribati gained independence on 12 July 1979 and Kiritimati was demilitarised. After the servicemen went home, many never anticipated returning to this island in the midst of the Pacific. I took this photo on Kiritimati during my Pacific fieldwork for Atomic Atolls. This project explores the cultural consequences of the nuclear-climate change nexus, through the entangled lives of British nuclear test veterans, and the places and communities where they worked during the Cold War. On this occasion I had accompanied a group of octogenarian nuclear test veterans, as they travelled half-way across the world from the UK to “Christmas Island”. Their aim was to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of their participation in Operation Grapple, Britain’s largest H-bomb tests in 1958. Both local people and soldiers have experienced long-term health impacts from these tests. Here, a group of Kiritimati Island elders threw their heads back and laughed when a veteran showed them his Grapple album. While British nuclear weapons are no longer tested here, this low-lying small island state must now contend with the consequences of climate change. Kiribati has recently signed and ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, but a further five ratifications are needed before this treaty comes into force.

Dr Becky Alexis-Martin is a pacifist scholar, and @MysteriousDrBex on Twitter. She is the author of “Disarming Doomsday”, which won the L.H.M. Ling Outstanding First Book Prize and was shortlisted for the Bread and Roses Award.  

Becky’s image was named the Judges’ Choice in the Early Career Researcher category in the 2020 Images of Research competition. The 2021 competition will launch soon. Check out the celebratory brochure and website here:

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