Around 110,000 people in the South Pacific were affected by the radioactive fallout of French nuclear testing, according to a new independent investigation. Even more damningly, the report argues that France may have even downplayed the true impact of its nuclear tests carried out in one of its overseas territories in an attempt to bury the past.
At least 193 nuclear bomb tests were blasted over French Polynesia between 1966 to 1996. This included at least 46 atmospheric tests, nuclear explosions that take place in the atmosphere, as opposed to underground. On the other side of the planet, there were also early French nuclear tests being carried out in the Sahara, the effects of which have recently come back to haunt France in the form of a radioactive Saharan dust cloud.
It’s relatively well-established that this spate of Cold War blasts left a nasty legacy in many atolls in the South Pacific, but an analysis of the recently declassified French military documents shows that the scale of the damage has been underestimated.
You can view the full research, dubbed the Moruroa Files, right here. The report was produced by Disclose, a French investigative news site, the Science & Global Security program at Princeton University, and Interprt, a British environmental advocacy group. The team sifted through thousands of pages of the declassified documents, combining their findings with a reanalysis of maps and images, to detail the impact of ionizing radiation from the blasts on people living in the Gambier Islands, Tureia, and Tahiti. They even modeled the blasts and their “toxic clouds” to gauge the scale of their radioactive fallout.
According to their calculations, approximately 110,000 people were affected by the blasts, almost the entire Polynesian population at the time, after being showered with dangerous levels of ionizing radiation.
A February 2020 report by French authorities said they could not "make a solid conclusion" about the links between atmospheric nuclear testing and health consequences, such as cancer. However, this report argues quite the opposite. They found there was a significant uptick of cancer in people living on Gambier Island, some 424 kilometers (263 miles) away from the Morura Atoll test site. Disclose interviewed 14 people living in Mangareva, the main island in the Gambier archipelago, and found there was a significant increase in the number of breast cancers and thyroid cancers among their family members.
"Leukemia, lymphoma, cancer of the thyroid, lung, breast, stomach. In Polynesia, the experience of French nuclear tests is written in the flesh and blood of the inhabitants," the report reads.
The report even makes the claim that France may have played down the effects of radiation on the people of the South Pacific. While re-evaluating the dose of radioactivity seen in French Polynesia, the French authorities underestimated and misjudged the doses of radiation received by the people there. In one particular example, they failed to take into account the drinking of contaminated rainwater. Equally, some radiation measuring stations in the South Pacific were surprisingly unreliable, operating with a 50 percent margin of error.
The report concludes its findings show "evidence of a lie," backing up the idea that France attempted to bury the level of contamination caused by its nuclear tests in Polynesia.
In 2010, Paris set out a nuclear compensation commission, CIVEN, designed to provide financial compensation to the victims of France's nuclear weapons tests. However, according to the new report, just 454 people have actually received an offer of compensation for cancers caused by exposure to radiation in French Polynesia. More than 80 percent of the compensation claims have been rejected.