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The consequences of nuclear imperialism and colonialism

Climate change and the war in Ukraine have cast a renewed spotlight on nuclear issues, say organisers of this weekend’s inaugural Nuclear Connections Across Oceania conference at the University of Otago 23 Nov 22 What is nuclear imperialism and nuclear colonialism?

The war in Ukraine has heightened people’s awareness of the ongoing threat of nuclear war, which could be induced by a nuclear weapon or the destruction of other nuclear infrastructure.

Nuclear imperialism is our current geopolitical order, where states with access to uranium and the ability to develop nuclear weapons hold dominant power over everyone else. Examples of nuclear imperialism include Russia’s ongoing threat to deploy nuclear weapons in Ukraine, or the reckless testing of nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable munitions throughout Oceania and the Pacific by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France since the 1940s as a way to entrench their geopolitical dominance.

Building on the work of Indigenous feminists such as Ojibwe environmentalist Winona LaDuke, nuclear colonialism has been described by the academic Danielle Endres as “a system of domination through which governments and corporations target Indigenous peoples and their lands to maintain the nuclear production process”.

Examples of nuclear colonialism include Canada’s decision to mine uranium on the ancestral lands of First Nations peoples; the United States’ decision to test nuclear weapons and depleted uranium munitions on the ancestral lands of Native Hawaiians, Native Americans and the Marshallese; France’s decision to test nuclear weapons in Ma’ohi Nui (French-occupied Polynesia); the United Kingdom’s decision to test nuclear weapons on the ancestral lands of Aboriginal peoples; Australia’s decisions to mine for uranium on the ancestral lands of Aboriginal peoples; Japan’s 1979 plan to dump nuclear waste in the Northern Marianas; Japan’s planned nuclear waste storage facility on Ainu ancestral land; Japan’s plan to discharge tritiated water from TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi into the Pacific Ocean in 2023 against the wishes of Indigenous peoples of the Pacific; and New Zealand’s decision to dump nuclear waste into the ocean until 1976; among many others.

Connecting nuclear justice and climate justice

While the nuclear industry has been aggressively framing nuclear energy as the answer to climate change, the material consequences of nuclear imperialism and nuclear colonialism mean that Indigenous communities around the world continue to suffer from the past and present harms of uranium-derived nuclear pollution. This, in turn, has set a precarious foundation for achieving climate justice.

The convergence of nuclear justice and climate justice are perhaps most evident in the Pacific. After decades of their lands, waters and bodies being used as the “nuclear playground” for many imperial nations, Pacific peoples unwittingly now find themselves at the front line of climate change.

This is through no fault of their own, as Pacific peoples are globally among the lowest contributors to anthropogenic climate change, according to estimates of CO2 emissions. Indigenous activists activists, who have long been fighting for a nuclear-free and independent Pacific are now struggling to tackle the existential threats of climate change and exploitative seabed mining.

In an unsurprising repeat of history, the same nuclear imperial nations continue to exacerbate the damaging consequences of climate change as they restrict the abilities of Pacific peoples to respond and impede the provision of a ‘Loss and Damage’ fund.

What is Nuclear Connections Across Oceania?

The Nuclear Connections Across Oceania conference emerged from conversations among five students and one staff member at the University of Otago’s Te Ao O Rongomaraeroa National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies and Kā Rakahau o Te Ao Tūroa Centre for Sustainability.

It provides the public with an opportunity to hear from key activists, artists, researchers, and community members on the material consequences of the nuclear military and industrial complex.

The core organising team of five locally based and international settlers of European descent and one Aotearoa New Zealand-born Sāmoan, had shared expertise and interests in questions related to uranium-derived nuclear pollution, nuclear colonialism, nuclear imperialism, nuclear non-proliferation, and climate justice.

They also knew that addressing the historical and ongoing harms of nuclear imperialism and nuclear colonialism would necessitate centring the experiences, needs, and voices of Indigenous peoples and others on the front lines working for nuclear and climate justice.

Cultivating a space to (re)connect

The conference draws inspiration from a genealogy of resistance in Oceania, and recognises a notable anniversary in the regional movement for nuclear justice. November 2022 marks 40 years since Māori hosted the first Te Hui Oranga o Te Moana Nui a Kiwa.

These hui brought Pacific activists to Aotearoa as part of the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Movement, a grassroots coalition of Indigenous rights, environmental, peace and trade union groups opposing nuclear colonialism.

Te Hui Oranga allowed for anti-nuclear work on Indigenous terms, outside the predominantly Pākehā (European settler) peace movement where racism and universalism had, at times, hindered introspection. These aspects of the nuclear-free legacy in Aotearoa are often obscured in the popular imagination by images of yachts (like those being re-popularised in Heineken ads) and David Lange’s Oxford Union speeches.

Through grounding the conference in Indigenous-led anti-colonial and anti-imperial movements, we want to use this occasion as an opportunity to remind people that an Indigenous-led regional movement that refused to sever the link between nuclearism and colonialism had immense power.

In refusing warship visits or protesting nuclear testing and the dumping of nuclear wastes into our oceans, the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement advanced a vision for Pacific regionalism outside of superpower domination.

This benefited tangata o te moana (Pacific peoples) as well as tangata whenua (Māori), who saw the value in sensitising domestic movements to regional struggles. In the words of the first hui’s report: “our manuhiri [guests] have strengthened us”.    

What to expect at the conference

The free and hybrid conference was designed as a gathering place for people across Oceania and the globe to learn from each other, collaboratively imagine what anti-colonial and anti-imperial nuclear futures might look like, and critically strategise how we might get there together.

It follows several major nuclear events, including the Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in August 2022. 

We invite anyone with a curiosity about nuclear and climate justice to join us on November 25-26 (NZDT). Recordings of some of the conference talks will be available on our website for those unable to join on the day, so we invite you to engage in whatever way works best for you. For more information and to register, please visit the conference webpage:


Dr Karly Burch (conference co-organiser and speaker) grew up as a settler in Hawaiʻi and is a research fellow studying the material politics of nuclear pollution, artificially intelligent robotics in agriculture, and collaborative research for sustainable technofutures, at the University of Otago’s Centre for Sustainability.

Marco de Jong (conference speaker) is a New Zealand-born Samoan, and is completing his PhD on the history of the environmental movement in the Pacific, at the University of Oxford.

Mino Cleverley (conference co-organiser) is a New Zealand-born Samoan, and is completing his PhD on Indigenous responses to climate change and forced retreat due to sea level rise, at the University of Otago’s Centre for Sustainability.

Bedi Racule (conference speaker) is a climate and nuclear justice advocate from the Marshall Islands/Federated States of Micronesia and recent graduate in development studies from the University of the South Pacific.

Tomoki Fukui (conference speaker) is an agenderflux Nikkei anthropologist, and is completing their PhD on how Japanese nuclear reconstruction uses patriarchy and ableism to further Japanese capitalism, at Columbia University.


November 24, 2022 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, indigenous issues

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