Radiating heat

Since France’s last nuclear bomb exploded in the Pacific in January 1996, it has had to face little international fallout. But now a local commission of inquiry has exposed the widespread effects of its nuclear testing.

For years, workers who staffed French nuclear test sites at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls have been campaigning for compensation over radiation exposure. Their association, _Moruroa e Tatou_ (Moruroa and Us), has over 4,000 members and has launched court cases in Paris for medical support and access to health records. Some workers face serious cancers that they attribute to radiation exposure. They are also worried about possible effects on the wider community from atmospheric testing in the 1960s and 1970s: French Polynesia has three times the rate of thyroid cancer to other comparable Pacific populations.

Their campaign was enhanced by the 2004 election victory of the Union for Democracy coalition (UPLD) led by anti-nuclear and independence campaigner Oscar Temaru. In 2005 the local Assembly in French Polynesia established a six-month inquiry into the health and environmental impacts of the 46 atmospheric nuclear tests conducted in French Polynesia between 1966 and 1974. The Commission was chaired by long-time anti-nuclear activist Tea Hirshon, an elected member of the governing UPLD coalition.

The Hirshon Commission report – tabled in the local Assembly on 9 February this year and presented at a seminar in Paris later that month – confirms there was radiological fallout from the 1960s atmospheric tests on islands near the test sites, such as Mangareva and Tureai. But the Commission was hampered by the refusal of the French Government to co-operate with its work. Requests for documents went unanswered and when Commission members sought permission to visit the test site on Moruroa, the French Ministry of Defence failed to respond.

‘In spite of all its declarations of transparency, does the Defence Ministry still have secrets to hide from the Polynesian people?’ asks Hirshon. ‘How can we be surprised today that medical experts find certain diseases such as acute myeloid leukaemia, considered to be induced by radioactivity, are four times more common in Polynesia than in the rest of the world?’

The Commission’s detailed report recommends that the French Government cleans up contaminated sites on Mangareva, Tureai and other atolls near Moruroa and conducts an inventory of nuclear waste dumped in lagoons or offshore. It also recommends that the French create an archive and memorial centre on nuclear testing with a commission of historians to document the nuclear era, establish a radiological analysis laboratory in French Polynesia, and create a medical monitoring service especially for former workers who staffed the test sites.

_For the 40th anniversary of the first French nuclear test in July this year, Moruroa e Tatou is planning a conference and other activities to keep the issue on the international agenda. Read more at _

Nic Maclellan, co-author of _After Moruroa – France in the South Pacific_ (Ocean Press)

New Internationalist issue 389 magazine cover This article is from the May 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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