March 1990
Vol. 46, No. 2


Poisoned Pacific:
The legacy of French nuclear testing



bengt danielsson

After 159 test blasts, fragile coral reefs lie shattered, along with Polynesian hopes for independence. The Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior incident is only one example of how the French keep a tight rein on information about the tests and how they may be devastating ocean life and the health of the islanders.
  France hosted a summit meeting of the seven wealthiest nations on earth last summer during the celebration of the bicentenary of the French revolution. The French delegation introduced a new subject to the economic summit--the global threat to the environment posed by industrial pollution, nuclear waste, and the greenhouse effect. But President François Mitterrand and Prime Minister Michel Rocard said nothing about the radioactive poisoning of the islands and islanders in French Polynesia resulting from French nuclear tests. Since 1966, France has conducted 44 nuclear tests in the atmosphere and 115 underground tests on two tiny South Pacific atolls, Moruroa and Fangataufa. [See map, page 28.]

During the pomp and ceremony, Mitterrand and Rocard also boasted that the French revolution was the historical event that had lit the torch of freedom. But they failed to mention France's stubborn refusal to grant independence to the native peoples in France's South Pacific colonies, New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

The irony of it all is that the godfather of the French nuclear enterprise, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, became a hero to the Polynesians during World War II by promising to give all the French colonies freedom as soon as the war was over. But in 1958, when he returned to power in France--with dictatorial powers in order to solve the "Algerian problem"--his nuclear ambitions took precedence.

At first, de Gaulle chose the Sahara for a nuclear test center, but when Algeria won independence in 1962, that site had to be abandoned. Shopping around for a new location, de Gaulle followed the earlier American example and ordered his bomb technicians to pursue their tests in the Pacific, where France still had several colonies. The ideal place seemed to be the tiny atoll of Moruroa in French Polynesia. When the 30 elected members of the local parliament, the Territorial Assembly, objected, they were simply told by the French governor that since they lived in a colony, all questions relating to defense matters were outside their competence.

Preparations for the test site were made hurriedly, with no attempt to soften the blow to the islanders. Eighteen thousand troops--including 3,000 Foreign Legionnaires--were sent to the rear base in Tahiti, where they soon created a variety of social and economic problems. And in the general rush and confusion, the commanding officer got the name of the test site wrong. Refusing to admit the mistake, French authorities have ever since called the atoll "Mururoa."

Despite the British, Soviet, and American agreement in 1963 to ban testing in the atmosphere, under water, and in space, General de Gaulle had no qualms about letting his technicians carry out atmospheric testing. Nor was he moved by the continued protests of the elected representatives of the Polynesian people, who tried to persuade him that detonating atomic bombs in the middle of islands then inhabited by 140,000 people could create serious health problems. These fears were played down by French cabinet ministers, admirals, and generals, who swore that French bombs would be exploded only when the wind was blowing from the north, toward the empty ocean between Polynesia and Antarctica.

After three years of feverish preparations, on July 2, 1966, the French tried out their new atomic test site at the Moruroa atoll. The first bomb, a plutonium fission device, was placed on a barge anchored in the lagoon. When it was detonated, all the water in the shallow lagoon basin was sucked up into the air, and then rained down. The islets on the encircling reef were all covered with heaps of irradiated fish and clams, whose slowly rotting flesh continued to stink for weeks.1

Trying a different tack, on July 19 the French dropped the next bomb from an airplane flying 45,000 feet above the empty ocean, 60 miles south of the atoll. Since no technicians or equipment were present to record the results, this exercise was uninformative. Two days later, an untriggered bomb on the ground was exposed to a "security test." While it did not explode, the bomb's case cracked and its plutonium contents spilled over the reef. The contaminated area was "sealed" by covering it with a layer of asphalt.

But these experiments were merely a prelude to the grand opening bang of the Centre d'Expérimentation du Pacifique (CEP), as the French called the Moruroa test site, in the presence of General de Gaulle himself.

For this blast, the technicians and troops were evacuated to another island, as they had been for the two preliminary tests. On the appointed day, September 10, de Gaulle embarked on a warship equipped with protective iron shields and sprinklers for washing away radioactive dust. This ship remained close enough to Moruroa to allow him to watch the test from the bridge. This time the "bomb," actually a box containing the 120-kiloton device, was suspended from a helium-filled balloon anchored to the reef and floating 600 meters above the lagoon.

Unfortunately, the sky was completely overcast and the wind easterly. There was nothing to do but postpone the test. On the following day, however, when the weather was even worse, so was the temper of de Gaulle, who was in a great hurry to return to Paris. So the box-like nuclear charge--the French technicians were still far from their goal of a sleek, operational bomb-- was exploded. Monitoring stations set up by the New Zealand National Radiation Laboratory in the Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, and Tuvalu--to the west of French Polynesia-- immediately registered heavy radioactive fallout. In Apia, Western Samoa, the concentration of fission products in the rain water was 135,000 picocuries per liter.2

During the next eight years another 44 French bombs, including five hydrogen bombs, were detonated in the Pacific skies above Moruroa and Fangataufa, another small atoll 40 kilometers further south. The monitoring stations New Zealand operated on other Polynesian islands regularly registered heavy fallout. But the French government each time claimed that the patriotic particles emanating from Moruroa managed to avoid all the islands of French Polynesia.

It was easy for the French government to brush aside local protests against atmospheric testing. But the vociferous opposition that continued to grow in Australia, New Zealand, and the other Pacific islands was harder to ignore. The outcry culminated in 1973 in widespread boycotts of French goods, airlines, and shipping lines. That year Australia and New Zealand also instituted proceedings against France in the international. Court of Justice at the Hague. As a result, in 1974 the new French president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, ordered the tests moved underground.

U.S. and British testing had long since moved out of the Pacific--the last British tests were conducted in 1958, as were the last U.S. tests on Bikini and Eniwetok. (The last U.S. tests in the Pacific were at Christmas and Johnson Islands in 1962.) No other nuclear weapon state had tried the technically difficult, costly, and dangerous task of conducting underground tests in the narrow base of a porous coral island. The French technicians sent out to Polynesia in 1962 had excluded this option in favor of atmospheric tests. Nevertheless, instead of moving the test program to France, where many suitable underground test sites existed, the CEP began in 1976 to detonate high-yield bombs in the narrow base of Moruroa atoll. The first experimental shafts were drilled at Fangataufa in 1975, but when the engineers mastered the technique, they chose to use Moruroa.

The only portion of Moruroa available for underground testing was a 23-kilometer strip of the southern half of the reef ring, since the rest of the island was covered with laboratories, warehouses, airstrips, and living quarters. Over the next five years, according to official statements, 46 shafts were drilled, 800­1,200 meters deep, depending on the size of the bomb to be tested. In other words, bomb blasts were spaced at 500-meter intervals along the available strip. Official documents reveal that the majority of the explosions hollowed out combustion chambers more than 100 meters in diameter and produced cracks 300-400 meters long, extending in all directions. [See map, page 24.] In addition, accidents ripped gaping holes in the flank of the atoll. The volume of material torn out by the biggest of these accidents, which occurred on July 25, 1979, was estimated at one million cubic meters by the French commissioner for natural disasters, volcano expert Haroun Tazieff, who visited Moruroa in 1982.3 The full extent of the leakage of radionuclides into the ocean is unknown, mainly because technicians have been unwilling and unable to undertake studies at the depths where the explosions take place.

By 1980, the base of the atoll along the south coast was used up. Again, the most sensible solution would have been to transfer the testing apparatus to France. But President Giscard d'Estaing rejected this solution for political reasons, fearing that French voters would object to testing in their own backyards, despite official assurances that underground testing is harmless. Instead, barges and derricks were dispatched to Moruroa for drilling bomb shafts in the shallow lagoon in the center of the atoll, where most tests have been conducted since 1981.

When civilian and military authorities decided to keep testing at Moruroa, they did not take into account an additional risk that many critics mentioned at an early stage: the possible exposure of the atoll to severe storms. Up to 1980, typhoons were extremely rare in French Polynesia; the last one had occurred in 1906. French army engineers therefore completely disregarded the risk when they selected Moruroa in 1962, although like most atolls, Moruroa is only a few meters above sea level. However, before 1980 was out, a typhoon hit the island. The only reaction in Paris was to order the construction of huge refuge platforms for the 3,000 men and 12 women employed and living at Moruroa.

These were not completed when, against all odds, the island was hit by giant waves stirred up by an even bigger typhoon during the night of March 11­12, 1981. This time, the civilian technicians employed at Moruroa, fearing for their lives, leaked a secret report to the French press, revealing that the storm had washed out to sea the huge amounts of nuclear waste that had been allowed to accumulate on the north coast. As the technicians, who were members of the socialist CFTD trade union, told the story, this waste included 10­20 kilograms of plutonium which had been spilled out on the reef between 1966 and 1974 during the so-called "security tests," and later covered by asphalt. The 1981 storm tore off the asphalt and scattered the plutonium over the lagoon.4 These revelations, which were also reported in the foreign press, led to punitive action against the talkative technicians, and a bold promise by Defense Minister Charles Hernu to clean up the atoll. Nothing further has been heard about the cleanup in the last nine years; meanwhile, Moruroa has been hit by five more typhoons.

When the Territorial Assembly at an early date expressed concern about possible accidents and the effects high-yield blasts might have on the health of the islanders, the CEP high command told the assemblymen that inspectors would circulate among the islands, check radiation levels, and ban any food items that presented the slightest health hazard. No inspectors have ever been spotted. Even more shocking, the French National Radiation Laboratory, which measures the radioactive pollution of the environment, the food, and the population in France, has never been allowed to send any experts to French Polynesia. Instead, all radiation studies have been conducted by French army doctors in the pay of the CEP, who refuse to divulge the facts and figures on which they base their frequent assurances that the tests are harmless. Reports on radiation sent in the early days of testing to the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation show only average fallout figures, usually from samples taken from islands farthest away from the test site. The committee has therefore constantly complained about the sketchy data.

The only published studies of any relevance to the radiation problem in French Polynesia were conducted by T. Yasumoto and A. Inoue, working for the World Health Organization. They collected data on ciguatera fish poisoning in French Polynesia in the late 1970s. [See the following article.] This type of fish poisoning, which results in vomiting, headache, fever, trembling, and paralysis, is a result of the multiplication of microscopic algae occurring when corals are killed. CEP doctors have always taken pains to point out that ciguatera has been known to exist since the days of Captain Cook and refused to see any link with the French nuclear tests.

Yasumoto and Inoue demonstrate, however, that ciguatera became a serious problem in French Polynesia only after the nuclear tests began; that the annual number of reported cases--between 700 and 800--is higher than in all the remaining islands south of the equator taken together;5 and that ciguatera epidemics occur most frequently in the islands nearest to Moruroa--Mangareva (Gambier), Reao, and Pukarua, where radioactive fallout was the heaviest and huge portions of the coral reefs are dead. The French army also dumped waste and cleaned contaminated warships at Mangareva.

French authorities have managed to distract attention from these health problems by focusing all interest on Moruroa and the controversy about how much radioactivity the cavity-riddled atoll is leaking and when it will sink into the sea. There seems little doubt that leakage from the underground testing initiated in 1976 has led to irradiation of the sea fauna around Moruroa, and that many contaminated fish, shellfish, squids, and sea turtles have been consumed by the inhabitants of nearby islands. But a greater danger to the health of Pacific islanders in a more extended radius is the plutonium waste dispersed by typhoons. And after 20 years, none of these health problems has been addressed.

In addition, all inhabitants of French Polynesia, who now number 188,000, face the insidious hazard of the steady absorption of radioactive fallout resulting from the 44 nuclear tests in the atmosphere between 1966 and 1974. As surveys made in Micronesia show, it takes 10­15 years before the effects of fallout become apparent.6 The most common radiation-induced diseases are leukemia, brain tumors, and thyroid cancers. As could be expected, it is from the early 1980s that a sharp increase in the number of these three types of cancer has occurred in French Polynesia.7 The French government has not only continued to keep cancer statistics secret, it has also constantly brushed aside the numerous requests made by the Territorial Assembly and government for a health survey by impartial foreign doctors. Private investigators, journalists, and TV teams have tried to pierce the official veil of secrecy. [See page 27.]

To counteract the widespread criticism of these blackout policies, the new socialist government of France invited a team of foreign scientists to visit Moruroa in 1983. The five members of this "inspection team," as it was called, were two New Zealand radiation experts, an environmental scientist from Australia, and an Australian marine biologist from the University of Papua New Guinea. They spent four days on Moruroa.

The head of the team, Hugh R. Atkinson, did not report whether he asked to observe a detonation, but none occurred during the visit. Nor was a submarine put at the group's disposal, although a fully equipped submarine suitable for the needed underwater research was cruising in Pacific waters at the time. Nothing could therefore be learned about venting, seepage, and leakage taking place at 800­1,200 meters, the depths where the bombs are exploded.

Had they been allowed to make the 15-minute trip from their living quarters in the CEP village to the "safety trial area" on the north coast, the team's one day of sample-taking could at least have provided information about the amount of plutonium and other radioactive waste still left there after the destructive 1981­83 typhoons. This was not the case, however; Atkinson remarked in the report published in July, 1984: "As the Mission was not permitted to sample sediments from the lagoon, nor take any types of samples from the safety trial area, this avenue of verification was denied."8

To placate the frustrated scientists, on the last day of their visit the base commander let them make a boat trip into the surrounding ocean to take water samples. Since the last small bomb blast had taken place three months earlier at a depth of 800 meters, the surface water was not particularly contaminated.

Despite the paralyzing restrictions imposed by the CEP directors, which prevented the Atkinson team from making useful observations, France's minister for the overseas territories, Georges Lemoine, interpreted the group's findings six months before the Atkinson report was released. He told the National Assembly in December 1983: "After thorough investigation of the Mururoa site, lasting eight days, and after having taken all the samples they needed and desired, the members of the team have admitted that France has adopted all necessary safeguards to assure that the tests are harmless. These words are uttered by scientists, whereas the opinions expressed by churchmen only have moral value. It can therefore be concluded that the tests of Mururoa are not dangerous." None of the applauding deputies asked when, where, and to whom the members of the Atkinson team had made the alleged statements.

The Atkinson report, which was finally released at the beginning of July 1984, was highly critical regarding such subjects as radiation venting, leakage, and breakage occurring at Moruroa, on which the researchers were more or less expert. But the report also contained a section on "cancer incidence and statistics for French Polynesia," a subject outside their competence. As is explained in the report, all the data reproduced in this section were supplied by the French army doctors who run the health service of the colony. But health service statistics represent only a small portion of the actual cases of cancer in French Polynesia. These statistics exclude all patients who are treated in the local military hospital, or by the 80 private practitioners, or by native healers and quacks, or by private doctors in countries like New Zealand, the United States, and France, as well as those who live on the numerous small islands where there are no doctors. The health department claims that these incomplete figures prove that cancers like leukemia and thyroid tumors are extremely rare and have not increased since the nuclear tests began in 1966. Unfortunately, these figures are widely believed because French officials often claim that these statistics are based on independent studies undertaken by the Atkinson team.

This is not the whole story, however, for nuclear testing has also been a political disaster for Polynesians. Above all, it has kept Polynesia under colonial rule long after French colonies in Africa gained independence. Despite the Polynesian political parties' determined efforts for more than 30 years to achieve self-government, all important decisions are still made by the French government and carried out by its local representative, the high commissioner, who is appointed by and responsible only to the French cabinet in Paris. Paris controls not only foreign affairs and defense, but also the police, justice, immigration, information, communications, foreign commerce, international air and sea traffic, currency, research, and higher education.

Local political parties and leaders are clamoring for more say in their own affairs, and pro-independence movements represent about two-thirds of the voters, but the colonial government is overpowering. About 8,000 troops and police maintain order. Bribes and subsidies are widely distributed. And the rapid development of a European-style money economy, based mostly on tourism, has made Polynesia more and more dependent on the "mother country."

French expenditures for the nuclear program far exceed monies for other Polynesian concerns. Up to 1974, when nuclear tests moved underground, the CEP spent more than twice the amount allocated for the territorial budget. Meanwhile the local economic base has eroded. As a result of the French nuclear testing program, agricultural production has sagged: exports of coffee and vanilla have ceased, and exports of copra and coconut oil have fallen substantially. Once nearly self-sufficient, French Polynesia now imports 80 percent of its food.9

All French governments since 1963 have strongly encouraged Frenchmen to settle and make a living in the colony. The total intake is over 30,000, and about 1,000 new immigrants come to stay every year. The situation is not yet as bad as in New Caledonia, where the Kanaks today are a minority in their own country; the Polynesians still outnumber the French by six to one. But since the French settlers are better educated and economically more powerful than the native Polynesians, they wield disproportionate power in the colony. The prospect of a more unified Europe in 1992 has raised other fears in French Polynesia. Influential local politicians worry about an influx of new settlers, or that all of Western Europe will use the territory as a dumping ground for nuclear and toxic wastes.

Several other, more subtle methods are used to make the islands politically safe for continued nuclear testing. For instance, the Polynesian population is daily indoctrinated by the government-operated radio and TV stations, which offer only the official French version of events and deny access to any individual or organization critical of colonial rule or nuclear testing.

Shortly after General de Gaulle made his fateful decision to use "his" islands for nuclear testing, an educational scheme with a curriculum taught exclusively in French was launched. Gradually, kindergartens have been built, staffed by French-speaking personnel. Today, most Polynesian teenagers have seven to 10 years of French schooling behind them, and many accept the existing system, because they have never known any other.

The French government obviously regards the islands as critical to its nuclear weapons program. Moruroa atoll may be nearly used up from nuclear testing, but as French officials have pointed out, there are 75 more atolls in the Tuamotu group.

Bengt Danielsson is an anthropologist who first came to the South Pacific with Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947. A resident of Tahiti, his publications include a six-volume history of French Polynesia and Poisoned Reign: French Nuclear Colonization in the Pacific (1986), which he coauthored with Marie-Thérèse Danielsson.

1. "Coco de l'atoll et poissons du large pour le poisson cru de Moruroa," La Dépeche de Tahiti, Papeete, March 29, 1963.
2. G.E. Roth, et al., Fallout from Nuclear Weapons Tests Conducted by France in the South Pacific from June to August 1971 (Christchurch: New Zealand National Radiation Laboratory, 1972).
3. Haroun Tazieff et al. Rapport sur l'ensemble de la mission scientifique en Polynésie française (mimeographed report published by the French Ministry of Defense, Paris, 1983).
4. CFDT, Section B-111, Contamination à Moruroa (typewritten report, Paris, October 19, 1981).
5. T. Yasumoto, Assignment Report on Ichthyosarcotoxism in French Polynesia (World Health Organization, Regional Office for the Western Pacific, 1976).
6. Thomas E. Hamilton, Gerald van Belle and James P. LoGerlo, "Thyroid Neoplasia in Marshall Islanders Exposed to Nuclear Fallout," Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 258, no. 5. (Aug. 7, 1987); "Report on the Investigation of Damage Done by the Bikini Hydrogen Bomb Test to the People of the Marshall Islands," Gensuikin News, (Feb. 1973); Glenn H. Alcalay, "The Aftermath of Bikini," Ecologist, vol. 10, no. 10 (Dec. 1980).
7. Bengt Danielsson and Marie-Thérèse Danielsson, "Half-truth, Glaring Omissions, Downright Lies, Critics Claim," Pacific Islands Monthly (Aug. 1983); Bengt Danielsson and Marie-Thérèse Danielsson, "Ambassador Puissant's Nuclear Fiction," Island Business (Oct. 1983); Bengt Danielsson, "French Polynesia, Nuclear Colony," in Politics in Polynesia (Suva, Fiji: University of the South Pacific, 1983).
8. H. Atkinson et al. Report of a New Zealand, Australian and Papua New Guinea Scientific Mission to Moruroa Atoll (Wellington: mimeographed report published by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1984).
9. Tilman Ruff, "Fish Poisoning in the Pacific: A Link with Military Activities," Working Paper no. 63 (Canberra: Peace Research Centre, Australian National University), p. 22.



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How safe are the French tests?

Since 1945, the nuclear powers have exploded
more than 2,000 nuclear devices.
The French have exploded 175 in the Pacific


50 years into the nuclear age, it seems we're finally coming to our senses. Next year the major nuclear powers look set to sign a treaty banning just about all nuclear testing. But before it signs, France insists on slipping in 8 more underground tests.


The outrage at the French government's decision is universal: it's been decried as arrogant colonialism, jeopardising progress to a nuclear weapons-free world.

But there's also the strong belief that French nuclear tests have contaminated the Pacific and its people.


Given the litany of lies we've been told about nuclear tests - from the Marshall Islands to Maralinga - people are understandably sceptical of France's assurance that all is safe. Claims that France's testing has poisoned the environment and caused cancers and birth defects are of great concern, but must be viewed in the light of the available facts. Tonight, we weigh up the scientific evidence. Is radioactivity the real danger?

Radioactivity is something we all have to live with, all the time. Cosmic rays from space, traces of radioactive elements in soil and our food; they make up what's called natural or background radioactivity. For Australia and South Pacific nations that's measured as 2 MilliSieverts a year.


To put that in perspective: every time you have a medical procedure like a CAT scan or barium meal, you're exposed to about 4 times that radioactivity, up to 8mS.


Most experts agree the 2 mS background radiation does us little or no harm. But when it comes to additional radioactivity: the less you're exposed to, the better.




Fallout is the radioactive byproduct of nuclear explosions. The greatest danger to humans are the radionuclides caesium 137, iodine 131, strontium 90 and plutonium 239.

In March 1954 the United States exploded a 15 megaton bomb on Bikini Atoll. People on some nearby Marshall Islands received a tragically high dose of radioactivity, with tragically clear results: thyroid disease and cancers, for which the United States belatedly paid compensation.

We know from the survivors of the first nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that doses of radioactivity above around 500 mS do cause extra cancers and birth defects in a population. The Marshall Islanders were exposed to four times that level, nearly 2,000mS. The case is not so clear cut in French Polynesia.

Between 1966 and 1974, France exploded 41 atmospheric tests in French Polynesia. The total yield was 15 megatons equal to one US test on Bikini atoll.


Dr Murray Matthews
National Radiation Lab New Zealand.
"Our estimate is that on average in the Pacific Islands from the entire history of atmospheric weapons tests individuals in the islands would have received around about one miliSievert over their entire life times from that testing."

One mS spread over 50 years. How can we be sure the exposure was so low? The figures come from the Australian Radiation Lab and the National Radiation Lab in NZ. Both exist to monitor radiation hazards and protect the populations. The labs have no vested interest in the nuclear industry - NZ doesn't even have a nuclear reactor.

During the whole period of French atmospheric testing New Zealand monitored the levels of fallout at their network of South Pacific stations.

The fallout was low, but uneven. There were rainouts, times when winds blew a cloud of radioactivity over island populations. If it rained, fallout rained down too.


Dr Murray Matthews
National Radiation Lab New Zealand.
"The most significant event occurred in 1966 when there was what we call a blow back from Mururoa towards Samoa in particular where the from the test went westward instead of eastward and it was caught in a heavy rain event at Samoa and this resulted in quite a lot of local contamination even then though the dose in that year from that event would have only been around naught point two miliSieverts.

Q. So that's still a tenth of the background radiation?

A. 1/10 of the annual background."

There was another rainout in Tahiti in 1974, but again fallout was well below background. We know of one other rainout, in the Gambier Islands, just to the southeast of Mururoa. Fallout was higher, 4 mS, twice background radiation, but many hundreds of times lower than Marshall islands. Now, some of these figures do come from France's monitoring stations, but they closely correspond to the levels and patterns of fallout monitored by New Zealand.


Dr Andrew McEwan
National Radiation Lab, New Zealand
"The radiation doses were so low that no effects from radiation would be expected. If there is no radiation there can be no radiation effects."

So what are we to make of the worrying claims that birth defects and cancer rates have increased in French Polynesia since the tests? As harsh as it may seem, reports of an increase of birth defects are all anecdotal - there simply isn't a register of birth defects in French Polynesia. And while evidence is building that cancers are increasing, there are other explanations.


Dr Andrew McEwan
National Radiation Lab, New Zealand
"Increasing cancers will rise if the people live longer, if the life expectancy goes up then the cancer rates go up because cancer rates increase with age. Another cause of increased cancer is changes and life style factors such as increases in smoking and if the population is smoking heavily then there will be a very considerable rise in lung cancers and other cancers."




The French still contend their atmospheric tests were safe, but they did respond to international pressure on health concerns. In 1975, more than a decade after Britain, the US and Russia moved their nuclear tests underground, the French finally followed suit. But while other nuclear powers moved out of the Pacific, the French stayed put. And on this question the scientific consensus is the French were mistaken. An atoll is no place to store nuclear waste.

Mururoa is a seamount- formed more than 7 million years ago when a volcano erupted beneath the sea. When lava hits cold water it forms intertwining tubes of rock, which build up a mountain.

The mountain erodes leaving a basalt base and a middle layer of soil. The top layer of limestones and corals leaks like a sieve.


Prof Michael Michael O'Sullivan
University of Auckland
"There's a very permeable zone from the level where the arrow at about 400 hundred meters below sea level up to the surface and that consists of limestones which are naturally very permeable and very leaky and the heavy ocean water here drives the water through the atoll up into the lagoon."

Any nuclear waste would get through these middle and top layers very quickly. But the shafts for the underground tests are up to 1,000 metres deep in the basalt base, supposedly well clear of the leaky layers.


Megan James
"What happens when you add a nuclear explosion or two according to the French?"

Prof Michael Michael O'Sullivan
University of Auckland
"Well we detonate a bomb//down in these deep basalts and then what the French claim is this kind of scenario where we have a chamber here which consists of glassified rock which is broken up in little lumps and surrounding that they say the rock is not very badly effected. So the natural flow of water is virtually unaffected by the bomb going off and radioactivity is safe down in the volcanic rock."

But there's a problem. The French claim the chamber is sealed, yet cools quickly. The only way it could cool quickly is if the chamber is really so cracked it allows cooling water to get in and out.



Prof Michael Michael O'Sullivan,
University of Auckland
"Now we have a large fractured chamber// Then the water can get down into the bomb site and up again."

Professor O'Sullivan concludes radioactivity must, in time, leak out. Is it leaking now?


The latest evidence we can now reveal strongly supports France's claim underground testing has not poisoned the marine environment.


These are samples of foodstuffs collected on Mururoa by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Fish from the lagoon, spiny lobster, molluscs and coconut milk.


The Australian Radiation Laboratory was one of 8 around the world given samples of the same organisms collected at the same time. The analysis shows there is radioactivity in the samples, but the levels are very low.


The results are credible because all 8 labs concur. Among them was New Zealand's National Radiation Laboratory.


Dr Andrew McEwan
National Radiation Lab, New Zealand
"The levels in those fish did show traces of Caesium 137 and strontium 90 which one would expect and the levels were fairly consistent with what one would expect from global fallout but there is certainly no evidence of significant leakage of any type."

Mururoa may not be leaking now, yet even the French admit the radioactive waste stored under their feet will eventually escape. But they say it won't be for thousands, perhaps 10,000 years.


The French claim the basalt that forms the base of Mururoa is not very porous; so any water in the blast chambers will take thousands of years to move through the rock. But there's good evidence it will happen much more quickly than that.



Megan James
"So these are actually samples from Mururoa itself?"

Prof Peter Davies
University of Sydney
"That's correct."

Professor Peter Davies visited Mururoa in the early 80s. He studied just how porous the atoll's base is. Some parts are far leakier than others.


Prof Peter Davies
"If you look at this sample for example there are nicks and cracks through the sample indicating that there are fisures which run through the sample and that is very important in terms of the conactivity of the pores in other words how water will transport through the rock."

Megan James
"And from the variety of porosities that you're looking at here how did you redo the sums on the how long it would take for leakage to occur from these basalt chambers?"

Prof Peter Davies
"From that I calculated best case scenarios of greater than 500 years for leakage fluids from the middle of the atoll."

Megan James
"And a worst case scenario?"

Prof Peter Davies
"Well the worst case scenario is related to something happening associated with the test and that's almost instantaneous."

And accidents have happened. In July 1979, a 120 kiloton bomb got stuck halfway down the shaft, at 400 metres. They exploded it anyway, and because tests were then on the rim of the atoll, part of the southern side collapsed in an underwater landslide.



Prof Peter Davies
University of Sydney
"The French have admitted to some million cubic meters of rock having come away from the side of the atoll. Well a million cubic meters is substantial however think of what it means: it's a hundred meters by a hundred meters by a hundred meters// that is actually a small portion of the atoll but nevertheless// they've also moved their tests back into the lagoon. And I don't think that they have reported or anybody has reported land slides since."

Because the tests are now in the centre of the atoll, and the bombs are now smaller, the risk of a major collapes is very low. Long term leakage remains by far the most realistic scenario.



Prof Peter Davies
University of Sydney
"In 500 years or whatever it is and I don't know what the exact time is but at whatever time, there will be the potential for Mururoa to leak radionuclides into the biosphere."

But such leakage may not be as dangerous as we've been lead to believe.





Dr Murray Matthews
National Radiation Lab New Zealand.
"Well a key factor which seems to be overlooked in most people's arguments is just what the source term is, how much radioactivity is locked up in Mururoa after all of these tests, it seems that in many circles some people think a very large amount of radioactivity is there and it should be called into perspective how much is there. "


The total fallout from all atmospheric tests ever conducted is 300 megatons. The total of France's underground tests to date is just under 3 megatons. We know that from New Zealand's seismic monitoring stations.


Most of that 3 megatons is locked in the glassy lining of the cavity created by the explosion. Only around 5% is loose in the blast chamber.Let's imagine for a moment that somehow it all leaked out tomorrow. Incredible as it may seem, the sums done by NZ's radiation scientists suggest there'd be no great danger to environment or health.



Dr Murray Matthews
National Radiation Lab New Zealand
"Well most of our reasoning in this area is based on recommendations of the International Commission on radiological protection and that body produces recommendations for limits of intake - they call annual limits of intake and if all of the material presently in Mururoa were to dissolve in a lagoon that size if it were fresh water, one could drink around about 300 litres of that before one would reach the annual limit of intake".

Megan James
"What about in a couple of hundred years, which is the best estimate, what would be the danger then?"

Dr Andrew McEwan
National Radiation Lab, New Zealand
"Well if one goes to hundreds of years to the future, then the fission products of more particular concern like caesium 137, strontium, they have halflives of 30yrs, so going 90 years is going through three half lives that the total amount is down to 1/8th - go another 90 yrs it is down to a 64th so it is actually decaying away and if you go hundreds of years into the future then you probably haven't got a lot of radioactivity to worry about."

None of these scientists is saying that Mururoa is contamination-free. It's known that in 1981 a typhoon washed between 10-20 kgms of plutonium, the legacy of earlier weapons safety tests, into the lagoon. Plutonium, when it's in the air and can be inhaled, is one of the deadlies substances we know. But in a marine environment like the lagoon, plutonium gets very strongly bound up in sediments, very little gets into the food chain. (as confirmed by the latest IAEA study.)



Megan James:
A lot of people might interpret this information as scientists saying that the testing is ok. That it can go ahead?

Dr Murray Matthews
National Radiation Lab New Zealand
"Well there are two distinct sets of issues related to Mururoa as the public see it. There are the what I would call political philosophical issues of whether we want weapons to be developed, whether we want nuclear proliferation, whether we want more people with nuclear weapons on the planet, there are those political and philosophical issues and then there are the environmental ones which I have been talking about. All I'm saying is that the environmental issues are not as great as people will appear to think they are".

Prof Peter Davies
University of Sydney
"The French are their own worst enemy. I think they have a huge data base which if shared properly with the scientific community would help to dispell many many of the problems that people currently relate to what is happening at Mururoa because on the basis of easily verifiable experiments it would be possible to show that much of the French data is correct. But they label everything confidential and therefore it never sees the light of day- it does them no good at all I said this to them in 1984."




The weight of scientific evidence is that the test pose no great danger to human health or the environment of the region. The real danger is that France's and China's resumption of testing may derail progress to a world free of nuclear weapons.



Dr Karin von Strokirch
Australian National University
"Well President Chirac gave the most detailed statement about the purpose of the nuclear tests one month after his announcement of test resumption. He explained to the French senate in Paris that of the eight tests four would be used to perfect computer simulation of nuclear tests two would be used to test the reliability and effectiveness of ageing detonators and fuses and the remainder, that is to say two, would be used to test what he called a new war head."


That new warhead may be TN75, the TN100 or a new generation variable yield warhead: potential first strike weapons.

Many of the new generation nuclear warheads are small enough for their testing to be hidden.


Dr Peter Wills
Greenpeace Spokesperson
"The thing that really makes me suspicious is that the military the French military wanted to to conduct 20 tests they said before France signed the comprehensive test ban now that makes me wonder if the eight tests which have announced involve something of the order of 20 devices rather than just eight as you would have thought."

Dr Karin von Strokirch
Australian National University
"Well I believe that in the past the United States has conducted two nuclear weapons test explosion simultaneously, there's no reason to believe that France can't do that."

If the French do test 2 devices simultaneously, we won't know. The Seimological Centre in Canberra will be the first place in Australia to detect any explosion. But from this distance, they can't identify an explosion under 1 kt, if masked by a larger one.



Dr Peter Wills
Greenpeace Spokesperson
"In the broader picture in the long run the reason to have a comprehensive test ban and to stop testing is to inhibit the development of nuclear weapons and the great offence which France is causing at the moment is that they say they will sign the comprehensive test ban when they have developed the means for circumventing it."

Those means are computers. France needs the field data from the Mururoa tests to perfect its computer simulation programs. But even if we stopped the French tests, other nuclear nations could continue the electronic version of the arms race. Because even under the proposed treaty banning all field tests, nuclear weapons are allwed to be developed and refined, via computers.


We've directed all our protest efforts at trying to stop this series of French tests, as though stopping them would somehow stop the arms race. Perhaps our protests would be better directed at ensuring next year's treaty is comprehensive in its truest sense.


Dr Karin von Strokirch
Australian National University
"No nuclear tests full stop no simulation full stop don't allow it nothing nothing is going to be allowed that will help a nation to develop nuclear weapons. "

"The opportunity we have now for achieving a comprehensive test ban is greater than it's been at any time since nuclear weapons have been invented//

And the danger is if we don't achieve a ban within the coming year the political situation could change in any one of the main players' countries. For example the United States is having presidential elections Russia is looking towards presidential elections the Chinese paramount leader may die in the not too distant future and if the political context changes in one of the nuclear weapons states it may change the whole of the nature of the negotiations for a comprehensive test ban".

Megan James
"We would have lost that opportunity?"

Dr Karin von Strokirch
Australian National University
"Mmm this is a window of opportunity now and we need to take it while its there."



This program was produced by Quantum and 1st screened on August 23 1995
It was written and reported by Megan James.
Copyright Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1995