Tahiti: Nuclear cover-up stokes tension with France

Oscar Temaru, the pro-independence president of the Tahiti Nui (Temaru’s preferred name for the French colony known as French Polynesia), dropped a political bombshell in the Pacific country’s parliament on July 28. Temaru released a letter from a respected government health expert in Paris that officially confirmed for the first time what most Tahitians have long known and France has always denied: that French nuclear explosions in their territory have increased cancer rates throughout the Tahitian islands. The revelation has further strained tensions between the Temaru-led coalition government and Tahiti’s colonial masters in Paris.

During the budget session of the French Polynesia Assembly, Temaru read out a letter by Florent de Vathaire, head of cancer epidemiology at the Gustave-Roussy Institute in Paris, which is part of the French Institute of Health and Medical Research. The letter, dated July 17, had been sent to Jurien de la Graviere, the French defence ministry’s representative in Tahiti.

According to the letter, a study conducted between 2002 and 2005 of thyroid cancer sufferers in Tahiti who had been diagnosed between 1984 and 2002 established a "significant statistical relationship" between cancer rates and exposure to radioactive fallout from French nuclear tests. "Thus, we now consider as established fact that the atmospheric nuclear tests conducted by France contributed to increasing the incidence of thyroid cancer in French Polynesia", de Vathaire’s letter stated.

Between 1966 and 1974, France exploded at least 43 nuclear weapons, including five hydrogen bombs, in the atmosphere at sites on the tiny Fangataufa and Moruroa atolls, which are situated some 1200 kilometres south-east of Tahiti’s capital Papeete. Between 1975 and 1996, another 140 or so underground blasts were conducted on or within the lagoons of the fragile coral atolls. The French government disregarded the opposition of the local people, and condemnation from the wider Pacific region.

For 40 years, the French government and military have steadfastly refused to admit that the nuclear blasts in the Pacific have had any detrimental effects. However, de Vathaire’s letter confirms that this stance could only be maintained by a systematic cover-up directed from the highest levels in Paris.

De Vathaire’s letter also reinforces the findings of unofficial studies and research over the years. On January 24, a commission of inquiry appointed by the French Polynesia Assembly reported that radioactive fallout from French atmospheric nuclear explosions reached most of the Tahitian archipelago, including Papeete. The committee charged that Tahiti’s high cancer rates are directly linked to the blasts and accused France of deliberately covering this up.

Committee chairperson Tea Hirshon lashed out at Paris for its refusal to cooperate with the committee in any way, even to the extent of refusing to acknowledge the receipt of letters from the committee. Official agencies, from the French nuclear establishment to the health and weather services, did not respond to requests for information.

A request by the committee to visit Moruroa and Fangataufa went unanswered. "We are scandalised by the absence of cooperation and the contempt shown by the defence ministry and state officials towards the elected representatives of Polynesia", Hirshon said.

However, the commission was able to publish 25 secret French military documents dating from 1966 and 1967 that had been leaked to the anti-nuclear journal Damocles in April 2005. These contained clear evidence that the French military, under orders from Paris, lied to local inhabitants when they claimed that no radioactive fallout reached the populated islands. In fact, the documents showed that every test conducted in 1966 and 1967 resulted in significant fallout reaching populated Tahitian islands.

"How can we be surprised that today in Polynesia we have a thyroid cancer rate that is among the highest in the world? How can we be surprised that today … certain leukemia, considered to be induced by radioactivity, such as acute myeloid leukemia, are four times more common in Polynesia than in the rest of the world?", Hirshon asked.

Faced with this evidence, Jurien de la Graviere calmly stated, "I don’t believe things had been hidden at the time, I would rather think they have not been said". He added that the French defence ministry urged that the nuclear debate in Tahiti be "less passionate".

Paris did not get its wish. On July 2, President Oscar Temaru held a ceremony in Papeete to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first French atmospheric nuclear explosion at Moruroa. Temaru unveiled a memorial "dedicated to the victims of nuclear tests in the Pacific". The ceremony was preceded by a two-day conference that brought together representatives of people affected by British and US nuclear tests in other parts of the Pacific, as well as survivors of the US nuclear attacks on Japan in 1945.

The French high commissioner (governor), Anne Broquet, issued an "open letter" in response to Temaru’s action, in which she referred to, among others, the Tahiti government’s memorial to the "presumed victims" of French nuclear tests as an "unfriendly" gesture.

Temaru countered on July 17 with his own "communique", in which he pointed out that "the unfriendly gesture was to have imposed the nuclear tests on a small population without defence", Tahitipresse reported on July 20. Temaru went on to state that Paris kept Tahiti’s people ignorant about the dangers of the tests and they have yet to tell them of the consequences of the nuclear blasts for the people and the environment.

Following the release of de Vathaire’s candid letter, Temaru’s thin majority in the Assembly on July 31 held a minute of silence on behalf of the victims of France’s nuclear tests, much to the outrage of the pro-French opposition parties.

From Green Left Weekly, August 16, 2006.
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Original URL: http://www.greenleft.org.au/back/2006/679/679p23.htm