Nuclear tests in the Pacific – 6


Photograph: David Robie


Part Six of David Robie's backgrounder to French militarisation in the Pacific


French nuclear swansong

France finally agreed to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty after a final swansong package of eight planned nuclear tests in 1996 to provide data for simulation computer software.

But such was the strength of international hostility and protests and riots in Pape’ete that Paris ended the programme prematurely after just six tests, and just a year after rioting destroyed the heart of the city.

France officially ratified the treaty on 10 September 1996.

When Tahitians elected Oscar Temaru as their territorial president in 2004, he had already established the first nuclear-free municipality in the Pacific Islands as mayor of the Pape`ete airport suburb of Faa`a.

Having ousted the conservative incumbent for the previous two decades, Gaston Flosse – the man who gave Mafart and Prieur a hero’s welcome to Tahiti, Temaru lost office just four months later.

He was reinstated to power in early 2005 after a byelection confirmed his overwhelming support. But since then Temaru has won and lost office twice more, most recently in 2013, and Flosse is fighting ongoing corruption charges.

Since the Temaru coalition first came to power, demands have increased for a full commission of inquiry to investigate new evidence of radiation exposure in the atmospheric nuclear tests in the Gambiers between 1966 and 1974.

‘Contempt’ for Polynesia

Altogether France detonated 193 of a total of 210 nuclear tests in the South Pacific, 46 of them dumping more than nine megatons of explosive energy in the atmosphere – 42 over Moruroa and four over Fangataufa atolls.

The Green Party leader in Tahiti, Jacky Bryant, accused the French Defence Ministry of having “contempt” for the people of Polynesia.

Replying to ministry denials in May 2005 claiming stringent safety and health precautions, he said: “It’s necessary to stop saying that the Tahitians don’t understand anything about these kinds of questions – they must stop this kind of behaviour from another epoch.”

Bryant compared the French ministry’s reaction with the secretive and arrogant approach of China and Russia.

However, Britain and the United States had reluctantly “recognised the consequences of nuclear tests on the populations” in Australia, Christmas Island, the Marshall Islands and Rongelap.

In 2009, the French National Assembly finally passed nuclear care and compensation legislation, known as the Morin law after Defence Minister Hervé Morin who initiated it. It has been consistently criticised as far too restrictive and of little real benefit to Polynesians.

In 2013, declassified French defence documents exposed that the nuclear tests were “far more toxic” than had been previously acknowledged. Le Parisien reported that the papers “lifted the lid on one of the biggest secrets of the French army”.

It said that the documents indicated that on 17 July 1974, a test had exposed the main island of Tahiti, and the nearby tourist resort isle of Bora Bora, to plutonium fallout 500 times the maximum level.

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© Copyright David Robie 2015.