Early nuclear tests in French Polynesia impacted 110,000 people, says new report

The report also mentioned that the French governement underestimated the nuclear fallout 

By DTE Staff
Published: Wednesday 10 March 2021
France hid impact of early nuclear tests in Polynesia. Photo: Flickr

Starting in 1966, France secretly started carrying out nuclear tests in French Polynesia, a group of islands and atolls in in the South Pacific, and over the next 30 years, conducted 193 tests.

The impact of these tests on the inhabitants was grossly underestimated by the French government, said a new investigative report.

The Moruroa Files found that around 110,000 people were contaminated by the radiation, almost the entire population of the Polynesia.

This is much higher than the 10,000 people recognised by the country’s health department. Only 454 people have been compensated for the ailments caused by the ionising radiation released by the tests, the report said, and 80 per cent of the appeals for compensation were rejected.

The investigative report released just ahead of the tenth anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster highlights the need for transparency around nuclear projects by governments across the world.

While the tests were confined to two atolls, Moruroa and Fangataufa, dense atomic clouds were carried to surrounding inhabited land and settled there, causing widespread contamination.

For over two years, a collective of security researchers, investigative journalists and data analysts went through recently declassified military documents and scientifically reexamined the nuclear contamination of the inhabitants of these island clusters.

The report focused on three major tests: The first operation ‘Alderaban’ in July 1966, the Encelade test done in June 1971 and the Centaure (the first underground test) detonated in November 1974.

The contamination is assumed to have caused a spate of cancer cases in French Polynesia. In Rikitea, Taku and Taravai shorelines on the Gambier islands, for example, the radiation caused a cluster of thyroid cancer cases, which was confirmed by a 2020 report by the government of French Polynesia, the researchers found.

In the initial years of the nuclear programme, the tests conducted by France were open air — till 1974, 46 such highly-contaminated tests were conducted, the researchers said in the report.

Interprt, a group of researchers that campaign for environmental justice and Disclose, a French non-profit that specialises in investigative journalism joined hands with the science and global security program at Princeton University (USA) to scrape data from the about 2000 of military document, interview dozens of locals and build scientific models to probe the real extent of the contamination.

For instance, to gauge how radioactive radiation seeped into the water, food and finally, into the bodies of the inhabitants of the small atoll of Tureia after the Encelade test, the team recreated a model of the village.

They compared the map of Fakamaru village in Tureia with recent satellite images to recreate the village, its church, its houses and most importantly, its cisterns.  

Using this model and other calculations, they found that the inhabitants were exposed to two to 10 times of radioactive radiation than what France's Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) estimated in a 2006 report.

The vast gap, the researchers explained, stemmed from some sources of contamination that the CEA did not consider. The new report took into account the drinking of contaminated rainwater from the cisterns, a parameter often overlooked by the CEA.

From testimonials by the locals and old military reports, the researchers also gathered that the French government had taken almost no precautionary measures to protect the inhabitants of the archipelago from nuclear radiation.

To allay growing fears among residents of Gambier Islands around the nuclear activity by the government, the latter resorted to last-minute, unscientific action which might have provided no safety to the unsuspecting residents.  

The Moruroa Files quoted from a military report dated Oct 19, 1966:

“The inhabitants manifested a slight worry that didn’t exist [before the first test]. The constructions of a blockhouse and a ‘Tortoise’ [an inflatable shelter] impressed them.”

The report said the French military had wrongly gauged that there would be no impact of the detonation in Moruroa on the residents of Gambiar. The military even put the island, located 424 kilometres away, out of the “radiological danger zone”.

The residents, hence, had no way of finding out the danger they were about to face, the report said.

The report also highlighted how the nuclear fallout of Aldébaran and Centaure tests could have been avoided by timely action by the French military.

In case of Aldebaran test, the military knew three hours before the detonation that strong winds were blowing towards Gambier Island and should have postponed the test, according to a 1967 report quoted in Moruroa Files.

The residents of Tahiti could have also been saved from nuclear contamination following the Centaure test had the military been proactive.

The meteorological forecast on the day of the detonation mentioned that air masses would push the radioactive cloud to Tahiti. “The military knew of the danger, but chose not to alert the islanders or ask them to take shelter,” the report said.

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