There’s no question that nuclear weapons can cause massive damage. One only has to look at the after-effects of the Hiroshima bombing to see the devastation they can wreak. However, the impact isn’t limited to physical destruction and death. Nuclear bombs and testing can also harm the environment and atmosphere long after the initial impact has passed.
An independent investigation recently revealed that French nuclear tests, conducted from 1966-1996, has impacted about 110,000 people in French Polynesia. What’s worse is that it appears France tried to downplay the severity of the impact. Here’s what the investigation revealed.
A French investigative journalism website called Disclose teamed up with Interprt, a British environmental advocacy group, and members of the Science & Global Security program at Princeton University to look into the Cold War-era French nuclear testing program. Their findings are available here.
The investigation sifted through thousands of pages of declassified documents to scientifically analyze the impact of the nuclear tests. They modeled the nuclear blasts, and compared images of the blasts to maps of the Gambier Islands, Tahiti and Tureia. This allowed them to get a better idea of how far the toxic radioactive fallout extended. The team also interviewed over 50 people, including military personnel and French Polynesian residents. Through their research and analysis, investigators discovered that the French government severely downplayed the effects of the nuclear fallout.
The French government released a report in February 2020 that claimed they couldn’t find a strong enough link between nuclear testing and health consequences—but according to the Moruroa Files investigation, this is a lie.
During the Cold War, the French government set off at least 193 nuclear bomb tests in French Polynesia. 46 of those bomb tests were atmospheric tests—bombs set off in the atmosphere instead of underground. There’s no question that these tests caused plenty of harm. However, the new investigation reveals that the government’s acknowledgement of the harm was significantly toned down. In fact, the investigators go so far as to describe their findings as “evidence of a lie.”
Their findings revealed that these environmental, atmospheric and health impacts were far more severe than reported. For example, people living on the Gambier Islands (about 263 miles away from the Moruroa Atoll test site) experienced a significant uptick in cancer rates. Thyroid cancer, breast cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, stomach and lung cancers are far more common in inhabitants, especially the family members of those who were living in the Gambier Islands during the Cold War.
110,000 people might not sound like a lot, but that number encompasses almost the entire population of French Polynesia during that 30-year span. Out of those 110,000, only 63 have received compensation from the French government.
How did it happen?
The investigative report suggests that the radiation levels observed were anywhere from two to 10 times stronger than the government reported. How could the French government be so far off in their findings?
One possible reason is that the government didn’t take contaminated rainwater into account. As they calculated exactly how much radiation the inhabitants were exposed to, they forgot (or “forgot”) to factor in the effects of radiation when drinking rainwater.
Another reason is that a 1974 test exposed the entire population of Tahiti to fallout. While winds predicted that the radiation fallout would be carried to the north, the winds actually blew west over Tahiti.
Why does it matter?
There are two broad reasons we should care about these findings. First, it’s crucial to understand the full impact of nuclear radiation, even generations later. Second, victims are entitled to compensation—but under previous French laws, about 97 percent of their claims were denied. This is due to the fact that “[i]f a standing Committee for the Compensation of Victims of French Nuclear Testing found that a person’s radiation contributed a “negligible” risk of causing their cancer—relative to factors such as smoking—the individual wouldn’t qualify for compensation.” In 2018, the law was amended to allow those who had been exposed to “1 millisievert (mSv) of radiation—about the amount in 10 chest x-rays” to qualify. After that, about half the claims were approved.
However, this investigation has shown that French Polynesian residents were likely exposed to significantly more radiation than the French government acknowledged—so there are far more people entitled to compensation than the government’s own findings implied.