Will France pay for its nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean?
French Polynesia comprises a multitude of islands in the center of the Pacific Ocean, which are a part of France. The biggest and the most famous of these is the island of Tahiti. As in other “overseas” territories that remain under France’s dominion since colonial times, there is a powerful movement for independence in French Polynesia. Islanders take special issue with their parent country when it comes to numerous nuclear tests, which France conducted in the region in the second half of the 20th century.
Based on available data, during the period from 1966 to 1998, the French military performed 193 tests of nuclear weaponry in the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa, which comprise the Tuamotu Archipelago. It is public knowledge that 46 tests, conducted from 1966 to 1974, were atmospheric in nature, i.e. nuclear warheads were positioned in special towers on the Earth’s surface, on barges in lagoons, on aerostats in the air, and were also dropped from planes and detonated in the air. It is noteworthy that in 1963, the USSR, the USA and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Moscow, which banned nuclear weapon tests in the atmosphere, under water and in outer space, but France chose not to participate in this agreement.
The other 147 tests were performed underground from 1975 to 1998, with detonations taking place in 500 to 1,100-meter-deep closed vertical shafts.
It is worth mentioning that both atmospheric and underground nuclear tests were conducted on the two atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa.
It is difficult to say which approach is more harmful to the environment and population’s health. A nuclear detonation in the atmosphere causes a rapid dispersion of radioactive substances over a large area, which soon have an effect on well-being of residents living in this area. After an underground test, a lot of harmful compounds could remain in a shaft, where the detonation took place, for quite a number of years. However with time, these substances, via various routes, such as underground waters, could pollute the surrounding area, and their effect may be more long-lasting and permanent than after-effects following a detonation in the atmosphere, which gradually subside with the help of winds and rains.
Either way, for a long time the French leadership asserted that the tests conducted in the Tuamotu Archipelago had no effect on either the environment or the residents of French Polynesia. However, even in the 1960s, many did not believe this to be true. For decades, the media have published increasingly frightening data about the state of the atoll environment and the fate of people who were in surrounding areas during nuclear testing. It was reported that French politicians and high-ranking military personnel often ignored warnings made by scientists about consequences of nuclear detonations. As a result, residents of near by areas were not evacuated, while French servicemen, who carried out these tests, did not have access to protective gear. In the 1980s the French military leadership attempted to convince the public that it possessed technology of a “clean bomb”, but few believed such statements. Even a stage-managed swim, taken by the French Defence Minister, Paul Quilès, in the lagoon of the Moruroa atoll 5 hours after yet another scheduled test in 1985 did not help matters (interestingly, he is alive and well at present).
In the end, the French Polynesian government managed to receive financial compensation from France, which makes annual payments for damage caused by nuclear testing. This money is a significant contribution to French Polynesia’s budget.
In addition, in 2001 two organizations were established in France. Their aims are to prove that the French government caused harm to a large number of people with its testing and to secure compensation for these people. These organizations are Association des vétérans des essais nucléaires (AVEN, Nuclear Test Veterans Association), which comprises French service personnel who took part in the testing, and Moruroa e tatou (Moruroa and us), which united workers from Moruroa testing sites together. For a number of years these bodies waged an information war against the French government, who continued to assert that the explosions in French Polynesia did not have any serious consequences.
In the end, France was forced to officially admit that thousands of people, including military personnel involved in nuclear testing as well as local residents, contracted serious diseases, including oncological, due to exposure to radiation.
In March 2009, France’s Minister of Defence, Hervé Morin, stated that overall, 150,000 residents of French Polynesia and France were affected by the French nuclear tests. In addition, he informed the public that the French Parliament was in the process of reviewing legislation on making annual targeted compensation payments to people who suffered from radiation exposure. France allocated 10 million euros for these disbursements per year. And individuals who happened to be near a nuclear testing site during detonations were no longer obliged to prove that their health problems stemmed from effects of radiation. The law was approved in 2010, however, according to data as of the end of 2018, only few people have been able to receive this compensation due to red tape. Based on some sources, in French Polynesia the number of such individuals is equivalent to dozens. Hence, the previously mentioned organizations with active support from the Assembly of French Polynesia (AFP, the local parliament) continued waging their battle.
As for the AFP, many of its members are supporters of independence of French Polynesia from France, and the damage sustained by the islands as a result of nuclear testing, is yet another trump card for them. The AFP organized numerous protests and information campaigns which demanded an admission that French Polynesia suffered from the actions taken by French military personnel. One of the key figures in this struggle became Oscar Temaru, a former President of French Polynesia, who held this post on five occasions and was the founder and leader of the party, the Front for the Liberation of Polynesia (FLP), currently known as Tavini Huiraatira (People’s Servant).
In 2013, France’s Ministry of Defence was forced to declassify a number of documents, which were immediately publicized by the media. These reports provide detailed descriptions of the effects of nuclear testing on the environment of the entire French Polynesia. For instance, the documents mention that after a series of nuclear tests, increased radiation levels exceeding safety limits were reported in Tahiti, an island in the center of French Polynesia, which is located more than 1,000 km from Moruroa and happens to be a popular international resort. Other islands of French Polynesia were reported to be in a similar situation. Furthermore, witnesses recall that there were instances when French authorities refused to evacuate residents from some French Polynesian islands that were within the fallout zone.
In November 2014, the AFP announced that it was determined to demand compensation from France for damage caused to the environment of French Polynesia, which it estimated to amount to more than 1 billion US dollars.
In October 2018, at the session of the UN Committee on Decolonization in New York, the previously mentioned politician, Oscar Temaru, affirmed that he and his allies had begun legal proceedings against France at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. France has been accused of crimes against humanity.
The same month, a court ruled to suspend Oscar Temaru from his duties within the AFP for a year as unexpectedly, fraudulent financial irregularities were uncovered during his election campaign. In November 2018, Oscar Temaru was detained for 12 hours in the course of an investigation on fund embezzlement from a local company that sponsored an opposition-friendly radio station. Now, the famous politician is awaiting trial, which will begin in June 2019. Members of the Front for the Liberation of Polynesia assert that evidence against Oscar Temaru was fabricated by the French authorities in order to ruin his reputation as a politician.
Regardless of whether these accusation are true or not, any focus on issues connected to nuclear testing in French Polynesia hurts France. As new facts about the events that transpired emerge, France’s actions in French Polynesia begin to look more and more unsightly. Environment-related crimes are among the most condemned in modern liberal European society. And the fact that France chose its “overseas” territory in the Pacific Ocean for its nuclear testing and failed to take necessary safety measures to protect local residents may be tied to even more deplorable acts, such as colonialism and racism.
Hence, France, long considered to be a bastion of European values, such as tolerance and multiculturalism, will most likely do everything in its power to reduce tensions surrounding Moruroa, Fangataufa and its nuclear program by, among other means, sidelining politicians such as Oscar Temaru.
In addition, it is important for France to dampen the separatist mood in French Polynesia so as not to lose dominion over the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa. After all, in order to accurately assess the environmental consequences of French nuclear testing in French Polynesia, and the potential threat to future generations of Polynesians, scientists need to conduct research in the cursed atolls. They need to determine quantities of harmful substances which remain underground, and to find possible routes that these compounds could use to spread from these two atolls to the rest of the region. Some also think that underground detonations could have resulted in appearance of cracks, which could connect the shafts where the tests were conducted with the ocean. However, scientists have not been able to access Moruroa and Fangataufa since France ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1998. Nuclear test sites have thus been sealed and are protected by armed security personnel who do not allow scientists and employees of environmental organizations to reach these areas.
Various experts have, on numerous occasions, expressed an opinion that France’s unwillingness to allow researchers to access these closed off testing sites is one of the reasons why France is trying to keep French Polynesia in its dominion.
It is well known that keeping these islands under France’s control is a significant expense for the French budget. The region is incapable of supporting itself even through tourism, which accounts for 25% of French Polynesia’s GDP and is a key economic sector for the nation. Paris is compelled to spend billions of euros on French Polynesia, which is why calls for its independence are even periodically echoed in France itself.
In addition, independence supporters who live in French Polynesia think that France is responsible for the region’s economic woes, as it prevents development of local businesses and sets high tariffs on imported and exported goods. Members of forces, opposing French rule, believe that the parent nation uses such means to artificially slow down economic development of French Polynesia for fear that, on gaining financial independence, the region will immediately attain political freedom. Then France will lose control over Moruroa and Fangataufa, and whatever secrets are hidden in these atolls will be revealed by the world media.
Now that the case has been taken to the International Court of Justice, France will need to do its best to maintain control of French Polynesia. If the AFP estimates damages, caused by nuclear testing, at 1 billion US dollars, then, most likely, France will pay this sum out. From now onwards, France will probably start making compensation payments due to veterans, affected by nuclear testing, and to common residents of French Polynesia, in accordance with the 2010 law, with much more effort. However, it is uncertain whether these measures will help France’s case, as this issue has already gained notoriety world-wide. For far too long, France ignored demands from people who suffered from consequences of nuclear tests. Perhaps if it had started making generous compensation payments to these individuals several years earlier, there would not be a court case against France at The Hague. As things stand now, the global community will have to make a legal and environmental assessment of the actions taken by France from 1966 to 1998. And it can not be ruled out that soon France will not only lose control over French Polynesia but its reputation as well.
Sofia Pale, PhD, Research Fellow of the Center for South-East Asia, Australia and Oceania of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”