On 2 July 1966, the French government exploded a nuclear weapon, codenamed "Aldebaran", on Moruroa Atoll in French Polynesia. It was the first of 46 atmospheric and 147 underground nuclear tests conducted in the South Pacific at Moruroa and Fangataufa Atolls.
Forty five years on, the government and people of French Polynesia marked the anniversary with a ceremony in a park on the waterfront in the captial of Papeete.
With 45 Marquesan drummers heralding the event, President Oscar Temaru joined survivors of France’s 193 nuclear tests in the Pacific, to rename the park. The area known as "Place Chirac", after former French president Jacques Chirac, will now be called "Place 2 July 1966".
The park includes a small memorial in memory of nuclear survivors, which was established on the 40th anniversary of the first French test at Moruroa. As well as commemorating the 193 French tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls, the memorial — in English, French and Tahitian — remembers survivors from nuclear sites around the region: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bikini, Enewetak, Johnston Atoll, Monte Bello, Maralinga, Emu Field, Christmas Island and Malden Island.
The ceremony comes at a time when new environmental threats from Moruroa are being revealed.
Right through the era of nuclear testing, environmentalists expressed concern that the detonation of nuclear devices beneath a coral and basalt atoll could cause long lasting damage to the structure of the atolls. One particular concern was fracturing — and the resulting underwater landslides that could release radionuclides into the ocean environment.
For many years, French authorities denied claims that the atolls’ geology had been affected by nuclear testing. However with declining international attention on the test sites since the end of the French testing program in 1996, more and more evidence is being released that shows serious geo-mechanical damage has occurred.
This ongoing hazard was highlighted in a January 2011 report by the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), released by the agency responsible for nuclear safety in defence installations.
The agency acknowledges that there have previously been collapses of sections of the coral reef and atoll base, such as the 1979 incident after a nuclear test codenamed "Tydee". That test created a three metre wave which flooded part of the atoll. As the report notes: "Even though the tests have ended, this type of event is capable of occurring again, especially in the south-west and north-east sector of Moruroa Atoll."
On this north-east flank — in sectors known as Françoise, Camellia and Irene — monitoring of the atoll’s geology is causing major concern. There were 28 underground tests in the north-east sector, with six tests releasing radioactivity into the ocean environment through cracks in the basalt base of the atoll.
The CEA report outlines scenarios where a landslide of the side of the atoll of some 670 million cubic metres of rock could create a 15 to 20 metre high wave, enough to swamp the east of the atoll. The collapse would also send out waves forming a tsunami, which could threaten the neighbouring island of Tureia (located 105 kilometres to the north-east of Moruroa).
The revelation of further geological instability on Moruroa caused uproar in French Polynesia. In March, former president Gaston Tong Sang wrote to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, asking Paris to send experts to Moruroa to assess the risks and options to stabilise the collapsing sectors.
When the report was released, the inhabitants of Tureia petitioned the French official responsible for nuclear safety, Marcel Jurien de la Gravière. They asked what would happen if a tsunami occurred on Tureia which could travel from Moruroa to the island in 15 minutes. "You have suggested that the military personnel stationed on Moruroa could be evacuated by air, but for us? What is to become of us? Will the French state evacuate us at the same time and how will this happen?," the wrote.
For most of the 300 inhabitants living at Fakamaru on the north of Tureia, this latest threat just adds to their uncertainty. The island has already borne the brunt of radioactive fallout from atmospheric testing on Moruroa between 1966 and 1974, a fact that was finally acknowledged by the French government in 2001 after decades of denial.
July 2011 also marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of Moruroa e Tatou which has been fighting for the rights of Maohi (Polynesian) workers who staffed the test sites.
As New Matilda reported in 2009, the association joined former French military personnel to campaign for compensation for the health effects of exposure to ionising radiation. Although the French government established a compensation scheme, veterans groups have criticised the way the law is being implemented. Of the first 12 cases by French military veterans put before the committee which runs the compensation scheme, only one was granted compensation.
In 2010, the independence party led by President Temaru, Tavini Huiraatira no Te Ao Maohi, presented a dossier to the Pacific Islands Forum, condemning the law as a "partial response" to the consequences of the testing. Tavini Huiraatira, a member of the Union for Democracy coalition which currently governs the country, is campaigning for French Polynesia to be relisted with the United Nations Special Committee for Decolonisation — a demand they’re planning to raise at the next meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum in September.
But Nicolas Sarkozy has made it clear that French government does not envisage self-determination for its Pacific dependencies anytime soon. Last year, Sarkozy stated that France’s overseas territories "are French and will remain French." While encouraging greater autonomy, he stressed that there is "one red line that I will never accept should be crossed: that of independence" But with Sarkozy due to visit the Pacific in August to open the South Pacific Games, the cracks in France’s nuclear safety record are beginning to show.
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