In the 1960s, the Algerian Independence War forced France to move their nuclear tests out of the Sahara Desert. The new location chosen for the tests was French Polynesia (FP), in particular, the Mururoa and Fangataufa atolls in the Tuamotu Archipelago.
The first atomic bomb was dropped in 1966 and it was followed by high levels of radiation fallout. Since then, and for 30 years, the Centre d'Expérimentation du Pacifique (CEP) carried out 193 nuclear tests in the atmosphere and underground (after 1974). The first hydrogen bomb (H-bomb) was detonated in Fangataufa in 1968 and had an explosive power 200 times superior to Hiroshima’s A-bomb. The Atoll had to be declared off-limits for six years.
The French military has been very secretive on the impacts of the tests on the Polynesian population. The French National Radiation Laboratory was forbidden to operate in FP and military personnel carried out all studies. They have never published a study on the impact of radiation fallout on the population inhabiting nearby Atolls. In the 1970s, Japanese scientists alerted for the correlation between fish poisoning (ciguatera fish poisoning) and the nuclear tests, with contamination levels far superior to other Equatorial islands. Moreover, New Zealand and Australian monitoring stations in other Pacific detected high levels of radiation fallout.
According to the local population, each time there was a new detonation the military moved them to shelters and their houses had to be decontaminated before they could return. Despite promises of radiation monitoring, the population affirmed they never saw the inspectors mentioned by the CEP. Moreover, there was also plutonium leakage from undetonated bombs, which the military covered with bitumen. During the 1980s, strong cyclones destroyed the plutonium-bitumen layer and the radioactive material ended up in the Ocean. In addition to radiation fallout, the French dumped high quantities of radioactive materials in the waters close to Moruroa, in particular after the beginning of the underground tests that required intensive drilling operations.
The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) has said little on the impacts of the French nuclear program in FP. In 1983, and under pressure from the World Health Organization (WHO), the UNSCEAR showed that radiation-induced diseases are statistically irrelevant in FP. In the 2000s, the Observatoire des Armements (and independent center created to monitor armament production and nuclear tests) published a report with declassified information from the Service Mixte de Contrôle Biologique(SMBC), which showed that radiation levels in food, drinking water and rain water in the Mangareva Atoll (to the East of Mururoa) were well above the accepted limits. Despite having access to this information, the CEP chose to continue the tests. Moreover, a study from the same period indicated a strong correlation between thyroid cancers and the nuclear tests. It was reported that approximately 9500 suffered from radio-induced diseases in FP.
The Polynesian Territorial Assembly (local government) has tried to form a civilian commission to conduct a thorough survey of the population health. However, this proposal has been constantly blocked by the French Government.
There were protests since France decided to start the tests in Polynesia. During the 1960s, many were concerned with the adverse impacts of the tests, in particular due to the recent experience with the US nuclear program in the Marshall Islands. In 1973, there was an anti-nuclear meeting in Tahiti (FP most inhabited island, including the capital Papeete) that gathered some French MPs and a few thousand locals. During the early 1970s, there were also protests occurring in Australia and New Zealand because of the monitoring activities mentioned above. Many civil society associations and other groups have not only contested the nuclear tests, but they’ve have also called for a boycott on French goods. At the same time, the nuclear detonations were criticized at the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm (1972) and by the UN General Assembly a year later. In the same year, the governments of Australia and New Zealand filed a demand against France in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for polluting their territories. France not only did not recognize the competence of the ICJ to decide on the matter, but it has also ignored the court injunction order.
Protest actions escalated when New Zealand sent a warship to Moruroa with a cabinet minister and members of the press. Some civilians have also sailed vessels in international territorial waters nearby Moruroa in the advent of a set of nuclear detonations, which pushed the French military to detain the crew in order to carry on with the operation.
In the early 1980s, after the beginning of the underground tests, French technicians working at Moruroa denounced the dumping of radioactive waste material to the French press when the government failed to hear their claims.
On 10 July 1985, two agents of the French secret services sank the flagship of the Greenpeace fleet, the Rainbow Warrior, at the Port of Auckland in New Zealand on its way to a protest against a planned French nuclear test in Moruroa. Fernando Pereira, a photographer, drowned on the sinking ship.
The nuclear activities in FP only ended in 1996 prior to France’s ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Since then, both the Polynesian population and ex-military members have had many difficulties to obtain information and compensation for the radio-induced impacts on their health.
In 2010, after a failed attempt two years earlier, France passed a Law (Loi Morin) authorizing compensation to people who had developed cancers because of nuclear tests in Algeria and FP. In eight years (from 2010 to 2017), the committee created for the purpose (Comité d’indemnisation des victimes des essais nucléaires, CIVEN) received 1245 demands, 811 of which were related to the Pacific program. From these, only 69 military and 11 local civilians had managed to receive compensation. The difficulties to obtain compensation relate to the continued restrictions of information access. In the same year the Law was approved, former Polynesian workers at the test sites formed an association to defend their rights, in particular of those that still today face the ills of radiation on their health. It’s called “Mururoa e tatou” (“Mururoa and Us”, in local creole).
In 2013, some declassified documents showed that plutonium fallout from the tests had affected a much larger area than previously admitted by the French State. The island of Tahiti had been exposed to radiation levels 500 times above the maximum accepted levels. This release of documents resulted from the efforts of a Christian Association – “Association chrétienne193” – that organized a petition for information and collected 35000 signatures.
In 2014, FP’s Territorial Assembly demanded $US 930 million in compensation for Radioactive pollution and $US 132 million for the occupation of the Fangataufa and Mururoa atolls, used during the tests. Two years later, the French President, Francois Hollande, recognized the environmental and health impacts of the French nuclear activities in the FP.
In 2018, a Polynesian politician and ex-president, Oscar Temaru, filed a complaint against the State of France in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague on behalf of the victims of nuclear colonialism.