Teraivetea Raymond Taha was just 16 when he started working on Moruroa Atoll, the site of France’s nuclear testing centre in the South Pacific.
"I left school at 12 years of age after my father died, as I had to help out the family," he explains. "At that time, the Pacific Testing Centre needed a lot of workers. For most Polynesians like me who started work in those years, it was the first time we would have a job and money in our pocket."
In 1965, Raymond Taha started work on Moruroa as a labourer and mechanic with the company Dumez-Citra. As France relocated its nuclear testing program from the deserts of Algeria to the isolated atolls of French Polynesia, they needed local workers to build wharves, a massive airstrip, concrete blockhouses and the other infrastructure needed for the test site.
After his military service in 1970, Raymond continued working as a security guard with the Atomic Energy Commission on Moruroa Atoll. He also worked at the military staging base on Hao Atoll, which supported military operations in the region over the next thirty years. (Between 1966 and 1974, there were 46 atmospheric nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa Atolls, then a further 137 underground tests from 1975 to 1996.)
Like other Maohi (Polynesian) workers at the Pacific Testing Centre, Raymond was involved in clean up operations. After an atmospheric test in September 1966, he joined other Maohi workers on Moruroa: "We had to pick up all the dead fish and clean up all the debris that littered the roads. The staff of the Radiological Safety Service were testing the soil with their apparatus. They were all dressed in special outfits with gloves and a mask. We Maohi workers were just following on behind them, without any special gear to protect us."
He recalls: "The bosses said: ‘It’s OK, you can go over there.’ We were scared, but if we’d refused, we would have been on the next plane back to Tahiti the following day. We would have lost our job, so we went ahead cleaning up without asking any questions."
In 1980, Raymond’s daughter Cinya was born, the only girl of five children. She died a year later, from complications with a malformed lung. In 1994, he was diagnosed with leukaemia and sent on a stretcher to a hospital in Paris, where he underwent two years of chemotherapy.
When Moruroa e Tatou (Moruroa and Us) was formed in July 2001, Teraivetea Raymond Taha was one of the first Maohi workers to join. Today, this association of former workers from the nuclear test sites has over 4200 members, and is seeking compensation for survivors of France’s nuclear program.
Already, there have been successful claims in France, from French military personnel who served at the Algerian and Pacific test sites. With support from the Association of Nuclear Test Veterans seven former soldiers have won pensions through the French courts and military tribunals. There have also been eight cases where civilians were granted compensation on the basis of workplace-related illnesses.
Now, for the first time, compensation cases have been lodged in Tahiti, for Maohi workers who staffed the test sites.
Raymond Taha’s case is one of eight lodged before the Tribunal de Travail in Papeete — a court which can determine if his illness was caused in the course of his employment in an unsafe workplace. Of the eight cases, only three of the survivors were present on the opening day of hearings on 27 April. The other five workers had died of radiation-related illnesses and were represented in court by their widows and families.
These cases are the first ever brought by the thousands of Maohi workers who staffed the nuclear test sites. But John Taroanui Doom, secretary of the Moruroa e Tatou association, says the eight cases are just the beginning: "So far, the association has begun to compile case files for 222 former Moruroa workers, of whom 146 have already died. Most of the case files of these cancer victims will be placed before the Tribunal de Travail."
On the opening day of the hearings, hundreds of former Moruroa workers marched to the court in a solemn procession under the banners of Moruroa e Tatou, joined by representatives of the Protestant Maohi Church, community organisations and even Oscar Temaru, the President of French Polynesia (Temaru himself is a member of Moruroa e Tatou, having worked on Moruroa as a customs officer in his youth).
A ruling by the court is not expected until late June. But the hearings come at a time when the French Government has finally begun to acknowledge its responsibility for the damage to health and environment caused by 36 years of French nuclear testing in Algeria and French Polynesia.
Last November, French Defence Minister Hervé Morin announced a significant policy shift, stating that the French Government would introduce legislation to compensate people affected by radiation at France’s nuclear test sites. Veterans groups have cautiously welcomed this breakthrough but continue to lobby to strengthen the legislation: the initial pledge of 10 million Euros for compensation is nowhere near enough to deal with the many potential victims, and veterans want representation on a monitoring committee to oversee any compensation scheme.
Roland Oldham, President of Moruroa e Tatou, notes: "The draft law covers workers and military personnel who staffed the test sites, but not the local indigenous communities on islands near Moruroa that received radioactive fallout. As well, the law makes no provision for ongoing clean up of contamination at the test sites."
Lobbying by Moruroa e Tatou joins actions by nuclear veterans in other countries. British, Australian, New Zealand and Fijian veterans are awaiting a ruling by the High Court in London, to see whether a compensation case can proceed for the survivors of British nuclear testing in Australia (at Maralinga, Emu Field and the Monte Bello Islands) and in Kiribati (at Christmas Island and Malden Island).
As French President Nicolas Sarkozy prepares to visit Australia and the South Pacific in July, Roland Oldham argues: "France must accept its responsibility for the legacies of the nuclear era."
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.