The great French denial

France’s nuclear legacy lasted 40 years with between 175 and 181 tests on Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls in French Polynesia, yet the European nation has largely denied any ill effects of its radioactive fallout.

There is now a growing call from French Polynesians for France to pay for a study on the genetic impact of the nuclear tests.

This was the statement made by French Polynesian president in response to questions from the opposition. The Tavini Huiraatira party wants a follow up on reports dating back to 2016, saying radiation caused disabilities in the atolls near the blast zones.

Mr Fritch said while there has been US$17,000 set aside in the budget since 2017, it should be funded by the French state. He said the trip to the French Assembly is a perfect opportunity to do this.

France has always said that there were no adverse effects of the hundred plus tests, but a recent study done in 2021 seems to say otherwise.

Over the course of two years, researchers analysed around 2,000 documents released by the French military and recreated the impact of “the most contaminating” of France’s nuclear tests carried out between 1966 and 1974.

The study was carried out in collaboration between French news website Disclose, researchers from Princeton University and British firm Interprt.

The 41st test took place over Mururoa Atoll on July 17, 1974, when the atomic cloud took a different trajectory than planned. Some 42 hours after the test codenamed Centaur, “the inhabitants of Tahiti and the surrounding islands of the Windward group were subjected to significant amounts of ionising radiation”, the report says.

The area was home to 110,000 people and Tahiti’s main city, Papeete alone had a population of 80,000. According to the investigation, the resulting radiation from the French tests was between two and ten times higher than estimates given by France’s Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in a 2006 report.

Australian protestors in early 1970s opposing France's tests in the Pacific. Picture Whitlam Institute Facebook
Australian protestors in early 1970s opposing France’s tests in the Pacific. Picture: Whitlam Institute Facebook

One reason, according to the findings, is that the CEA “did not always take into account the drinking of contaminated rainwater” when calculating the dose of radiation individuals were likely to have been exposed to.

The CEA study was used as the basis for determining whether people were eligible for compensation from the French Government.

France’s nuclear victims compensation committee head, Alain Chrisnacht, told French media that the fallout over the Tahiti area had already been documented and a large number of requests for compensation had been agreed.

The report, however, said only 63 French Polynesian civilians had received compensation so far. In 2018, the former head of child psychiatry in Tahiti Dr Christian Sueur reported pervasive developmental disorders in areas close to the Morurua test site.

In his assessment, Sueur noted that of the 271 children he treated for pervasive developmental disorders, 69 had intellectual disabilities or deformities which he attributed to genetic mutations.

He also reported that on Tureia atoll, a quarter of the children present during the 1971 blast had developed thyroid cancer. Dr Sueur said in 2012 among the atoll’s 300 residents there were about 20 conditions believed to be radiation-induced.

He said the genetic conditions were found mainly in children whose parents and grandparents had been exposed to radiation from the atmospheric weapons tests in Moruroa between 1966 and 1974.

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This led to the French military doing their own tests and it was concluded that there was nothing out of the ordinary, and linked the behavioural and developmental problems in children to high levels of lead from car batteries used in fishing.

Despite the claims by France, so far the nation has paid out 63 French Polynesians compensation for their acts. However in 2021, French president Emmanuel Macron during his first visit to the islands, promised transparency around decades of nuclear tests in Polynesia leading to a spike in cancers and changes to compensation procedures.

Unlike France, geopolitical pressure in the Pacific region has moved the United States to take a more concerned look into the demands by the people of the Marshall Islands, who just like the French Polynesians were subjected to nuclear tests.

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