Europe

France hid contamination by nuclear tests in Polynesia

Declassified documents, health reports show French officials knew of contamination from nuclear tests in Pacific islands

Shweta Desai   | 10.03.2021
France hid contamination by nuclear tests in Polynesia FILE PHOTO

PARIS 

French authorities deliberately concealed the impact of radioactive contamination on the health of Polynesians for more than 50 years, a new investigation on nuclear testing on the Pacific islands has revealed. 

The Moruroa files were released Tuesday through a collaborative project between investigative journalism media platform Disclose, spatial designers working on environmental issues at NGO Interprt and researchers from Princeton University’s Science and Global Security program.

The two-year-long investigation based on a scientific assessment, declassified French Defense Ministry documents and health surveys presents new evidence on the French military tests.

It reveals that almost the entire Polynesian population, approximately 110,000 people, were infected with high levels of radiation from the 193 nuclear tests conducted by France. These tests were carried out from 1966 to 1996 at the Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls, including 46 open-air atmospheric explosions, until 1974.

At the time of these tests, the military did not undertake preventive measures of evacuating the people inhabiting the islands around the testing sites, said the report, citing declassified documents from 2013.

However, an on-ground investigation carried out by Disclose on Mangareva island in the Gambier archipelago showed a high occurrence of breast cancer and thyroid cancer among the families who were present during the tests.

The report mentions official documentary evidence on cancer cases among the Polynesians and French military personnel who were involved during the tests. A February 2020 report on the consequences of the tests conducted for the French Polynesian Health Ministry officially recognizes the “role of ionizing radiation...in the advent of this excess of cancer [cases].”

Similarly, email exchanges on compensation among different services of the French Defense Ministry in February 2017 estimate the possibility of around 2,000 staff members who “resided on the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa between 1966 and 1974 contracting a “radio-induced cancer.”

Moreover, the public agency French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, or CEA, “underestimated the doses of exposure to ionizing radiation” in its 2006 evaluation to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The Disclose investigation re-evaluated the estimations of the doses of radioactivity using information from declassified French military archives and scientific processes and found a number of errors in the CEA’s study. The CEA’s calculations of the maximum dose received by the local inhabitants were between twice to 10 times lower than their estimates, the investigation report said.

Although the French government set up a commission called Civen in 2010 to compensate claims by civil and military victims of the nuclear testing campaign, only 454 people, including 63 local inhabitants, were paid financially. More than 80% of the claims have been rejected.

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