Clouds Over The Pacific
France conducts its nuclear tests in the Tuamotu Group of French Polynesia because they are `geologically sound'. And it will not move its testing ground to France because it would be `too costly'. Strange but, true, if we are to believe what Paul Cousseran, High Commissioner in French Polynesia, told me a couple of years ago.
But Mr. Cousseran is not to be believed. Behind his polite visage one could sense the Gallic disdain of French officialdom to its own subjects and those who argue for self-determination in the colonies. The fact is that the French government was willing to expose defenceless Pacific Islanders to radiation dangers which it would never dare inflict on its own citizens.
It would be unfair, however, to single out France as the only villain of the Pacific nuclear tragedy. In one way, by their arrogant rejection of all protests, the French have at least shown an honesty of purpose - a purpose which includes radiating the fishing grounds of the Polynesian people; showering islands and continents (South America and Australasia) with radio-active fallout; inflicting disease upon Oceanian society by importing thousands of male military and technical personnel and so on.
Long before Charles de Gaulle's decision in 1963 to protect France by testing nuclear weapons on the other side of the earth, both Britain and the United States had latched onto the same idea: Britain by laying waste Christmas Island (the largest atoll in the Pacific) and three sites in Australia; and the United States revelling in above-ground fissionary fireworks at a variety of sites in the Micronesian islands entrusted to its safe keeping at the end of the Pacific War.
Why do the great powers of the world choose to see the capacity of the Pacific as infinite; as just a mass of empty water? To Pacific Islanders, in the words of Governor Carlos Camacho of the Northern Marianas `the sea is our farmland, our rangeland and our forest'.
The first and only atomic bombs detonated in anger - on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 - began their journey from Tinian in the Mariana Islands of Micronesia. The people of Micronesia played no witting part in that act, yet they were to pay sorely for their occupancy of one of the most remote and sparsely populated areas on the globe.
Between 1946 and 1958, the US detonated 66 nuclear bombs on the atolls of Bikini and Eniwetak in the Marshall Islands of Micronesia. Among those tests was the first hydrogen bomb, detonated on March 1, 1954. It was a day long to be remembered by the people of Rongelap Island, just to the east of Bikini. A few hours after that first H-blast radio-active ash began falling on Rongelap. Water tanks were contaminated; skin burns and loss of hair due to radiation poisoning was immediate. To come later were an outrageously high incidence of miscarriages, thyroid tumours in children (90 per cent of those under 12 in 1954 now have them) and cancer. Contaminated food and water have been blamed. In 1978 a US government survey declared Rongelap stillheavily radio-active.
The dispossessed Bikini people are now suffering the privations of having to live on a much smaller island. Conditions there are poor. An attempt by the US to clean up Bikini between 1970 and 1978 led to some Bikinians returning to their homeland. In 1978 it was found that the atoll was still dangerously contaminated. Those who returned can now anticipate further health problems because of exposure to radiation.
After signing the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the US restricted nuclear testing to underground sites in mainland Nevada state. Britain, before also being driven underground in Nevada by the partial test ban, made nine detonations on Christmas Island, four in 1957 and the balance in the following year.
In 1963 France took up where America and Britain left off, detonating 41 devices in the atmosphere before underground testing began in 1974. The sites of this French disregard for the safety of our planet have been Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls in the Tuamotu Group of French Polynesia. Although officially France went underground in 1974, new evidence suggests that surface tests in concrete bunkers are being conducted on Moruroa. In April 1979 High Commissioner Cousseran declared that French testing in the Pacific caused no pollution apart from that in the detonation chamber. Two months later, on July 6, six human `decontaminators' bored a hole in a bunker which had already been used for a test. One died immediately, another later and the rest were badly burned - all blasted by temperatures up to 1800 degrees Celsuis. Worse - high radiation flowed out into the atmosphere and the ocean.
Such frightening stupidity brings to mind President de Gaulle's cruise to the Tuamotus to watch a test in September 1966, described in Bengt and Marie-Therese Danielsson's Moruroa Mon Amour. Even for the General, the wind simply would not blow in the `safe' direction necessary for the test. Now as everyone knew, the General was a busy man with much work to do back in Paris. `The poor admiral was in a terrible quandary,' wrote the Danielssons. `If the bomb did not explode soon, the General would. Having weighed these two risks . . . he decided that the latter disaster would be worse , . , ' As well as French Polynesia, the Samoas, Cook Islands, New Zealand, Fiji and Australia were sprayed with radioactive dust - courtesy of the General's cringing admiral. But the General's schedule remained undisturbed, and the air around his pleasant home at Dauville 10,000 miles away remained unpolluted.