Albion Monitor /Commentary

Nuclear Paradise in the Pacific

by Hans Veeken

Tahiti's economy relies upon French nuclear testing

"The nuclear testing ruined the country," says a French doctor.

We met on the docks of Tahiti, watching Greenpeace's ship, Rainbow Warrior, depart for the atoll of Mururoa. "Not only by contamination of the environment with nuclear fallout or leakage of the residue in the bottom of the atoll, but far more by disrupting the social harmony of the country," he continues.

"The country was self sufficient before the testing started; people subsisted on farming and fishing. Nowadays the state is entirely dependent on France. Imports exceed exports tenfold. It is an artificial state: approximately 15 percent of the population work as civil servants. Migration, loss of cultural values, degradation of agriculture, change in eating habits, prostitution, alcoholism, and mental illnesses are all the result of this.

"This country is addicted to France. Since the moratorium on the testing, the people have been forced to think of a future without France. Resuming the testing is like giving an addict who recently stopped using drugs another shot.

"France has the obligation to leave behind a state that is self-sufficient and not a wreck with a long-term legacy of nuclear waste. I can show you files of patients who died of radiation, but I guess you are more interested in public health aspects. Well, the cancer register you might look for doesn't exist -- not kept, or hidden, who knows? Anyway, inaccessible for us. Don't forget that until 1984, most practising doctors here were military people. It is no coincidence that the doctor supervising the atolls of Tuamotu, where the test site Mururoa is situated, is still a military doctor."

France has conducted 110 underground tests

French Polynesia is an archipelago of about 130 islands, situated in the Pacific halfway between Australia and South America. The territory covers an area as big as Europe. Although its population is only 200,000, the country is well known to the world, mostly for its paradise-like scenery. The crew of the Bounty simply refused to sail on and settled on one of the islands. Who has not dreamt of retiring on a distant atoll, inhabited only by some friendly natives, subsisting on fish and coconuts?

Jacques Chirac's announcement of the resumption of nuclear testing on the atolls of Mururoa and Fangataufa, in the extreme south east of the archipelago, has stirred not only the archipelago but also the world.

As an overseas territory, French Polynesia has an autonomous government, but it depends on France for defense, justice, finances, and foreign affairs. Tahiti, on which half the population lives, is the largest island. The smaller islands are atolls: like Tahiti, they have a volcanic origin, as the volcano sank and coral was deposited on top. This coral is visible as a rim above sea level, surrounding the inner lagoon. After Algerian independence forced France to stop nuclear testing there, the French decided that the Pacific was the most suitable place to continue, conducting 44 atmospheric tests up to 1976. Thereafter they performed 110 underground tests, drilling boreholes 800 metres into the basalt of the volcano. It is presumed that the nuclear waste after the blast remains safe in the basalt and does not migrate into the environment. Ironically, Mururoa means "place of the great secret" in the local language.

We decided to visit the country to assess the effects of the testing on the health of the population and to see whether this necessitated a humanitarian response.

Are there more congenital malformations?

Papeete, the capital, is a small town of about 40,000 inhabitants. It is difficult to keep a low profile. In no time at all, journalists are after us. Rumors pop up: we have been sent by the French government; we have boarded the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior to sail to Mururoa.

On the street I speak to a woman; she tells me that her child was born without an anus. "The child was operated in France, but I never got the results of the investigations. They keep the diagnosis secret, they hide the results, sir. There are more children born without an anus," she says.

I'm told by another woman that there are 15,000 handicapped people in the country. I try to calculate a figure for a quick reference, but who defines handicapped? "We can organize for you to meet people who still suffer from skin diseases, body pains, children with short arms, all due to the testing," a delegate of the local union tells me. I'm not really interested at this stage in a parade of incurable patients. It seems important to obtain objective data but it is difficult to break through the hysteria of the information.

The high commissioner promises openness; a visit to the site is, however, impossible at this stage. He hopes we understand. He explains some rumors. Radiation is higher in Europe; Australia is nearer to China (which also does nuclear tests) than to Mururoa; and there have never been illegal burials in France. In no time, a couple of meetings with local authorities are scheduled. We visit the department of public health and ask directly about the rumors. Is the incidence of cancer higher due to the testing? Are evacuations to Paris done secretly? Are there more congenital malformations than in other countries?

No systematic collection of health data

The cancer issue would seem easy to answer, but not in Polynesia. "The register started in 1985; before that time, no systematic collection of data existed," the official tells us. "But, no problem; if there would be more cancer due to radiation we would find out now, because it has a time lag of decades before cancers develop. Cancer ranks number two on the top five mortality but one should not forget that the population grows older; now the life expectancy at birth is 66 years for men and 72 for women. Furthermore, the lifestyle has changed completely." Indeed, the number of obese people in the street is striking.

There is no register for congenital malformations in the country -- difficult to believe for a country in which nearly all women deliver in hospital. If data for the general population are lacking, what about data for the groups at risk: the site workers, in thousands; the military; the people living on nearby atolls who have supposedly been exposed to high nuclear fallout during the atmospheric tests?

"The surveillance of the workers is the responsibility of the employer," states the official. He cannot provide followup on the issue. "The followup of the people on the nearby atolls is difficult. There has been considerable migration, how to find the original group? It is too expensive and laborious. We have more pressing issues to address. Road accidents are the number one killer, especially among the youth. In fact we have the highest standardized number of deaths due to accidents in the world. We work hard and we have made progress, but we cannot do everything at once. We have made good progress with health over the last few years."

Thyroid cancer is far more common than reported

Indeed, an extensive network of health posts covers all atolls. Most of the atolls are connected by a direct telephone system; if necessary, referrals by plane can be made. The country has 300 doctors and in Papeete, there is a referral hospital equipped up to European standards. It seems, however, that the costs of this system are not sustainable without outside help. The contrast of the high level of care and the embryonic stage of data collection for the population at risk is striking and makes one suspicious.

A clinician we speak to later explains that there is serious underreporting of the number of thyroid cancers. "Thyroid cancer is far more common than reported, and we definitely see it more than in France. This is not necessarily related to radiation but may be caused by goitre. Goitre has a high prevalence in the area; it appeared in Gaugin's paintings."

The next day we visit the nuclear protection and safety institute. "Surveillance is done of the environment and the food chain for the whole of Polynesia," the director explains to us. Later it turns out that they test food everywhere in Polynesia except for the test site.

"The test site is not permanently inhabited and no food grows there," we are told. It still seems strange. We are oversaturated with figures. "One has to drink 15,000 litres of coconut milk from Tahiti to get the maximum intake of caesium 137." That seems difficult indeed. "The food with the highest radiation is being imported. Milk powder from Europe, contaminated after the Chernobyl incident, or mineral water with natural radiation yield the highest activity," he continues. The grays, curies, rems, and their modern successors sieverts and becquerels are all within reasonable limits.

Another representative walks in: "I have worked for over 20 years on the atoll and swum there every day in the lagoon." We understand that the dose of radiation due to underground testing, as they measure it, is minimal.

Independent studies to investigate the atoll have been restricted

But has it ever been measured by independent scientists? The three independent studies to investigate the atoll that have been permitted by France have all suffered from the same restrictions: too little time, limited access, and insufficient provision of background data.

And what is the long term outcome of the nuclear residue in the bottom of the atoll? It is difficult to imagine what is actually tested. If the hole is definitely sealed off, why don't they test even deeper than the 1,000 metres they reach now? Do they work on the cavity left by the explosion? Are all the test holes connected?

The answer seems too simple to be true: "The load is sealed off by the process itself and that is it." The opinion of the officials on the followup of the workers is also simple: "We have no right to check on people after they quit their job. The environment is surveyed and as long as the radiation is within limits, there is no need to check the people."

The military doctor we spoke to is a nuclear specialist and he too is convinced of the minimal effect of the testing on the environment. "The levels are so low that we have problems with the threshold limits of our detection equipment. No, the environment will not suffer; there are even plans to make a national park of Fangataufa -- the abundance of birds is striking." What about the risk of cancer for the workers? "The risk with such a low dose of radiation is not known, but difficult to imagine," he says.

What about the follow up of the military? "There are only a dozen military people who received a maximum dose of 15 rem in one incident. Doctors, especially radiologists, obtain the most radiation in Polynesia."

Not being able to visit Mururoa, we try to visit a nearby atoll. "Does the boat sail regularly?" we ask a man from Gambier.

"Yes," he answers decidedly.

"How often?"

"Every month."

"And returning?" The man looks puzzled by the question. He shrugs: "The next month of course." The journey is abandoned.

The rally tour of officials has rendered useful information. The actual radiation from underground testing seems small. But all these figures are provided by the authorities. Why don't the authorities allow in-depth research at the atoll by independent scientists? This could effectively counter all the hysteria.

"If the testing is that safe, why don't the French do it at the Cote d'Azur?"

Greenpeace never got permission to measure directly around the atoll. Their flagship was blown up by the French secret service in 1985, leaving one crew member dead (and the two secret agents sentenced to jail for 10 years).

Many Polynesians say "If the testing is that safe, why don't the French do it at the Cote d'Azur?" Minimal radiation into the environment doesn't exclude all risk. In Chernobyl, too, the authorities would tell you that the risk was zero.

The risk of an accident can never be excluded. In 1985, the load exploded halfway in the shaft at 400 metres; in 1981, a typhoon hit the island, throwing a cement slab, and the nuclear waste that was stored underneath, into the lagoon. The outcome of the nuclear residue in the bottom of the atoll on the long-term is unpredictable. Will it not leak and contaminate the environment?

The lack of followup of the people at risk is a serious omission. I cannot state that all tests should be banned -- some people argue that the nuclear threat kept the postwar world in a peaceful balance. Minimal ethical standards should, however, be adhered to.

Polynesians shoulder a heavy burden of the testing. In 30 years their society changed from a "subsistence paradise" to a money-driven society dependent on France. Before, the inhabitants lived on fish; now croissants seem the staple food.

This process has brought progress, but has it brought happiness? It is the moral obligation of the French government to pay attention to these aspects and invest in forming a stable society, instead of leaving behind -- along with the kilos of radioactive material in the soil -- a crippled society.

Active followup of workers and people being exposed to a high level of nuclear fallout at the time of the atmospheric testing seems indicated. This is extremely laborious but not expensive, compared with the actual testing.

If the French insist on continuing the testing they should take full responsibility for the program and do everything to protect the local population from the side effects of a show they never asked for.

Hans Veeken is a public health consultant who works with Medecins Sans Frontieres Netherlands, and his comments may not reflect the official standpoint of Medecins Sans Frontieres Intemational. This essay first appeared in the British Medical Journal and is copyrighted by that publication.

Albion Monitor September 2, 1995 (

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