Polynesians demand apology from France for nuclear tests

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It has been almost two decades since France stopped testing nuclear weapons in French Polynesia.

But many residents of French Polynesia’s 118 islands and atolls in the central South Pacific were disappointed last month when President Emmanuel Macron, on his very first trip to French-controlled territory since 1842, failed to visit. is not excused for the nearly 200 nuclear tests carried out between 1966 and 1996.

“Faced with dangerous powers in the concert of nations, I want to say here that the nation owes a debt to French Polynesia,” Macron said in a July 27 speech. He then admitted that testing at Mururoa and Fangataufa atolls was “not at all clean” – but stopped before an official apology.

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Guillaume Colombini, who works for Radio Te Reo-o-Tefana, said that while they didn’t expect an apology, it was still devastating not to get one.

“So when you do something wrong, whatever it is, if you go to the people that you hurt and you say to them, ‘Look, I’m sorry for what I did,’ Colombini said. , “It’s easier for the community to say, ‘OK, we accept, here’s forgiveness’ or ‘No, we don’t accept’. You have to do something for us.

Colombini, 41, grew up in Tahiti during the last decades of nuclear testing and said he recalled seeing images of blue lagoons turn white after bombs were set off. He can tell about the hyper-polarization of the issue and the anti-nuclear protests aroused across the Pacific.

Although testing stopped more than two decades ago, his legacy lives on in French Polynesia’s politics, health, economy and environment, he said.

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Underestimated exposure levels

Scientists have long estimated that some 110,000 people were affected by the radioactive fallout, including many French Polynesians who worked at the test sites. However, a study published earlier this year found that France underestimated the level of toxic exposure in atmospheric tests that took place in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Mururoa Files was based on a two-year investigation of more than 2,000 declassified French state documents as well as various interviews conducted in French Polynesia.

“We found that they underestimated the level of [nuclear] exposure by factors of 2 to 10 … “

Sébastien Philippe, researcher and teacher, Princeton University

“We found that they underestimated the level of exposure by factors from two to 10, depending on the tests and locations,” said Sébastien Philippe, researcher and teacher at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs with the science and global security program. and co-author of the study.

This is two to ten times higher than the estimates given by the French Atomic Energy Commission in a report produced almost a decade after the tests stopped. The results compiled by Philippe and his team revealed, among other things, that one of the reasons the radiation exposure estimates were so low is that France did not take into account contaminated drinking water.

Ultimately, this systematic underestimation not only made the link between cancer cases and nuclear tests more difficult, but it also made it harder to compensate victims.

“The compensation process has been scientifically broken …”

Sébastien Philippe, researcher and teacher, Princeton University

“The compensation process was scientifically broken, and I think the reason is that the government really realized how much money it was going to cost them and decided it would be easier to deal with this in court,” Philippe said.

Over 400 claims have been filed against the French government, but only about half have been settled in the past 10 years. Philippe said this was allowed due to the French government’s “censorship and secrecy” surrounding the nuclear tests.

One of the benefits of publishing this study, he said, was the French government’s commitment to open more government records to the public – a commitment President Macron made on his recent trip. The French government did not respond to The World’s request for comment on Marcon’s trip.

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Irreversible environmental damage

The underestimation of radioactive fallout also made it difficult to fully understand the extent of irreversible environmental damage caused by nuclear testing.

Keitapu Maamaatuaiahutapu, a physicist and climatologist at the University of French Polynesia, said the destruction was particularly severe when tests were carried out underground in the mid-1970s and bombs were set off in boreholes dug in the atolls.

These bombs were “100 to 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima,” he said.

Entire lagoons filled with corals have been wiped out and fish populations have been poisoned for years. Now there are also fears that the atolls will separate – a process being accelerated by rising sea levels due to climate change, he said.

“And releasing the radioactivity from those holes, not only would that create [a] tsunami, but it would pollute the ocean.

Keitapu Maamaatuaiahutapu, physicist and climatologist, University of French Polynesia

“And the release of radioactivity from those holes,” Maamaatuaiahutapu said. “Not only would that create [a] tsunami, but it would pollute the ocean.

France continues to monitor all information on nuclear test damage, including heavily guarding the test sites themselves, he said, so there might not be a way. to say when something might happen. The atolls of Mururoa and Fangataufa are over 700 miles from the main island of Tahiti.

Maamaatuaiahutapu also said he does not believe French Polynesia will ever get an official apology from Paris, which also creates political problems.

Experts have said that French Polynesians loyal to France do not want to criticize Paris because it backs the territory with some $ 2 billion a year.

On the other hand, the independent movement, which includes Maamaatuaiahutapu and Colombini, supports all efforts to hold France accountable and publicize nuclear testing across the Pacific, a place known primarily for its beauty.

“If you look beyond [the postcard], there is something that you cannot even imagine.

Guillaume Colombini, Radio Te Reo-o-Tefana

“In all the other islands in the Pacific you have the same,” said Colombini, who has also spent more than a decade working in the tourism industry in French Polynesia. “You have the postcard, but if you look past it, there’s something you can’t even imagine.”


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