French nuclear waste project hungry for land

Some people might wonder why I write so much about le nucléaire in France while I live so much closer to Fukushima. One reason is that I can understand written French much better than I understand written Japanese. Another is that the Fuku-Ichi catastrophe is already being covered intensely by others, and I ran out of things to say about. The best reason is that what is happening in France has some instructive lessons to teach to other nuclearized nations that haven't given much thought to what to do about nuclear fuel after it has been through the fissioning process. This end-product is commonly called "nuclear waste" but it should be recognized as the main product of the nuclear industry. The heat that fissioning generates is just a passing phenomenon, a by-product.
We can at least give France credit for trying to face up to the fact that something needs to be done with nuclear waste. Nations such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have pretended for a long time that the problem could be ignored. Since the triple meltdowns and spent fuel fire in Fukushima, the issue has gained some attention, thanks in part to former prime minister Koizumi's efforts to make the political establishment face up to it. It has become obvious that the original plan to "recycle" nuclear waste with fast breeder reactors was a total pipe dream, so now there has been some talk of finding communities that might agree to allow geological disposal in a suitable site. Yet suitable sites are impossible to find, and even if there were any, agreeable communities would still be hard to find. Recently, there was even talk of burying nuclear waste under the seabed.
Over the last two years I've translated several articles about the French CIGEO project that aims to create a deep geological repository in Bure, in northeastern France (see the links below). I believe these reports from France can serve as a valuable warning about what rural communities around the world can expect when national authorities come around trying to impose their grand plans for "the final solution."
This latest installment illustrates how the original plan, once it has got some level of local agreement and momentum, can later take on other aims and have wider effects than the locals originally understood.    

In Bure, nuclear waste clears a path through the thickets
by Professor Canardeau
December 2015

a translation of
A Bure, les déchets nucléaires se tirent la bourre
Le Canard enchaîné, décembre 2015

Since 2008, in Bure, where the highest level nuclear wastes produced by 58 EDF reactors are supposed to be buried for 100,000 years (and longer!), the organization in charge of this project has been undertaking land acquisitions at a frenetic pace. The purchases consist of effectively 3,000 hectares that ANDRA (l'Agence nationale pour la gestion des déchets radioactifs) has already bought in Haute-Marne and la Meuse. Yet the above-ground installation at CIGEO (the deep geological repository for nuclear waste) is to occupy only 300 hectares, ten times less than what has been purchased.
Opponents of CIGEO are intrigued to discover that certain parcels of land have been bought at high prices, as much as 10,000 euros per hectare, which is double or triple the market price.
Jean-Paul Baillet, assistant director general of ANDRA explains these prices quite simply, "We sometimes had to buy land from farmers, and we also had to buy their houses, their cattle…" Their cattle? "Of course we resold those." But farmers in the area are beginning to fear an escalation of prices. On November 15th, 2015, eleven tractors assembled in front of ANDRA offices to protest the land grab by the agency.

3,000 hectares: for what exactly?

But why such an unhealthy appetite for land? Why did ANDRA buy 2,254 hectares for 15 million euros, and an additional 850 hectares reserved close to SAFER, the regional rural land management society, making a total of 3,014 hectares? Jean-Paul Baillet of ANDRA adds, "By offering land swaps, we wanted to avoid having to expropriate land from farmers who found they had land on the site." And the forests? Among all the lands purchased, 2,052 hectares are forest land. "This is also to have land for exchange because the entrances to the tunnels will be on forested lands. We have to make up for this loss of environmental heritage." But to buy more than 2,000 hectares of forests to compensate for at most 100 hectares cut down? This is what is bizarre. Unperturbed, Jean-Paul Baillet elaborates, "We want to conserve the forests as good custodians while we safeguard our investments."
If ANDRA wants to safeguard the 80 million-euro budget for CIGEO, all the forests of la Marne won't be enough," scoffs Maurice Michel, president of Asodedra, one of the local groups opposed to nuclear waste disposal. Bernard Heuillon, a proprietor of a family-owned forest in la Meuse, confirmed such a view. "I never earned anything from these woods." This former geologist doesn't doubt that these purchases indicate ANDRA's intention to expand CIGEO. What if, as he believes, the agency is preparing to store radioactive waste above ground?
It's plausible, in effect: the storage site in la Manche, next to la Hague, where there are medium and low-level wastes, has been full since 1994. And it's on the move. Since 2003, new waste has been sent to the storage facility in l'Aube. But this site isn't designed to hold it permanently.
So, is Bure set to be a future site of above-ground nuclear waste storage? After all, while we are waiting for the passage of a law on "reversibility" to come soon, the burial project has not yet been officially validated.


Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence: A Christmas Tale for the War on Terror

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Directed by Nagisa Oshima, Screenplay by Nagisa Oshima and Paul Mayersberg
Based on The Seed and the Sower  and The Night of the New Moon by Laurens van der Post
Starring David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thompson
Music by Ryuichi Sakamoto

It should be obvious that we won't preserve our environment or rid the world of nuclear weapons if the nations of the world don't start rebuilding a serious amount of lost trust and making up for lost opportunities. So for Christmas I depart from the usual topics and cover the classic war film from 1983, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

One wouldn't expect to find a redeeming message for humanity in the 21st century in a tale about the horrors of life in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, but if you've been listening to the new atheist intellectuals tell you that modernity is in a fight for its life against an unprecedented, barbaric and irrational ideology, this story serves as a good reminder that there is nothing new under the sun. The West's now friendly ally Japan was once seen an irredeemable fundamentalist death cult obsessed with suicide attacks, disembowelment and decapitation. Sound familiar?

That fundamentalist cult is still there under the surface. The current prime minister is a grandson of one of the leaders who was charged with war crimes after WWII, and unlike in Germany where it is taboo to deny Nazi atrocities, in Japan it is still taboo to admit to Japanese atrocities in China.[1] However, the point is that Japan reverted to a certain level of normality in its international relations, and other countries welcomed it back into the family of nations. If ISIS toned down its extremism a little and made political compromises with other nations, it is not inconceivable that it could transform itself into a legitimate state that is no more extreme than Saudi Arabia. And that says a lot about our acceptance of Saudi Arabia as a member of the international community.

The fictional film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence was based on the writings of the POW camp survivor Laurens van der Post. The survivors of Japanese POW camps told of the brutality of their captors who ran the camps on the values of bushido rather than on the international laws of war and the Geneva conventions. That brutality is depicted in the film, but if that was all there was to it, there wouldn't be anything compelling to watch. What makes it worthwhile is the way the humanity of the captors bleeds out of them despite their best efforts to cover it with their shame and their ideology. At the same time, the allied prisoners are also seen to be victims of their own culture's hideous rituals and beliefs. Both sides share the toxic shame of having betrayed a brother or comrades while trying to live up to an ideal of manhood (women are completely absent in the story).

The camp commander, Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), carries his shame and recognizes that one of the enemy captives, Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie), suffers from a similar affliction--a shame that resulted in a disregard for his own life, which comes across as apparent bravery and fearlessness. For Yanoi, this recognition remains subconscious, as it only triggers an erotic attraction which deepens the shame in his tortured psyche. He can explain it only as a demonic possession that his enemy has inflicted on him.

Another officer in the camp, Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano), has no such delicate sentiments while he torments the prisoners with random beatings. But in all his interactions with Colonel Lawrence, a Japanese-speaking prisoner, his vicious sarcasm quickly settles into friendly teasing and banter, and it becomes obvious that in spite of himself, he wants to connect with these men whom he is supposed to hold in contempt. In the scene that gave the film its title, he gets drunk on Christmas day and commutes two death sentences, proclaiming himself to be "father Christmas."

The historical record shows that the fundamentalist death cult burned itself out and that it was never really in charge anyway. When it became obvious that a Soviet invasion was imminent, the capitalists who ran the country were ready to cut a deal and suffer an American occupation. The atomic bombings barely registered as a topic in the cabinet meetings in the last week before surrender.[2] It shouldn't be forgotten that the tribunals held by the victors sentenced minor figures like Sergeant Hara to death. Officers higher up the chain of command also received death sentences not only for allowing torture but for having failed to ensure it wouldn't occur. For America's "excesses" and "mistakes" in Iraq since 2003, the same standard was never applied.


[1] Tom Clifford, "Japan Rewrites War History at Yasukuni," Counterpunch, August 13, 2013. http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/08/13/japan-rewrites-war-history-at-yasukuni/ 

[2] Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Belknap Press, 2006).

Other Sources

John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (Norton & Company, 1999). 

Kurt Loder, "Straight Time," Rolling Stone, May 1983, (interview with David Bowie)

Richard H. Minear, Victor's Justice: The Tokyo War Crimes Trial (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1971).

Douglas Valentine, The Hotel Tacloban (Lawrence Hill Books, 1984). More recent editions available from various publishers. This is a non-fiction memoir of the author's father's experience as a prisoner of war in Tacloban, Philippines during WWII.


French Polynesia: Witnesses of the Bomb

(This post was revised on March 16, 2019) 

July 2nd, 2016 marks 50 years since French Polynesia became a “center for experimentation” for the French nuclear weapons program. We could call the quiet disaster that followed “the Chernobyl of the Pacific.” The voices of those who lived through this period (1966-1996) sound all too similar to those in Voices of Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich. Yet the significant difference is that Chernobyl was an unintended, though perhaps predictable, catastrophe. The French nuclear tests in the South Pacific were plotted and carried out over thirty years, premeditated with full awareness of what the consequences would be. The French program also differs from the American program in the Marshall Islands in that it was carried out in a well-established colony of France. The Americans were newcomers when they came to the Marshall Islands and imposed their plans for destruction on a defenseless culture. The French nucleocrats came to Polynesia seeking the cooperation of the territorial government which, if not for the temptations of jobs and economic benefits brought by the CEP (Centre d’expérimentation du Pacifique en Polynésie française), could have opposed the nuclear tests and probably could have succeeded in stopping them. And this is one aspect of the story that stings the conscience of Polynesia to this day. The tests did proceed, against the strong objections of the world and all other Pacific Island nations, and they were carried out after the United States and the Soviet Union had recognized the madness of atmospheric and underwater tests and halted them in the early 1960s.

On July 2nd, as Polynesians gather to remember the testing era, in solidarity with the military and civilian veterans from France who are also victims of the fallout, they are protesting several aspects of their official treatment. One is the lack of progress in recognition of health effects and compensation for victims. The Morin Law of 2010 was supposed to have been a major step in this direction, but almost all applications have been rejected since the law came into effect. Polynesians are also displeased with the unapologetic stance of the French government that was made obvious during President Hollande’s visit earlier this year. While admitting to the consequences of testing, he never came close to saying the nuclear tests are something to be regretted. He declared, “I recognize that the nuclear tests conducted between 1966 and 1996 in French Polynesia had an environmental impact, and caused health consequences,” but he added that without its overseas territories, “France would not now have nuclear weapons and the power of dissuasion.” [1] Thus, though he admitted that the testing program had grave social and biological consequences, the lack of apology was equivalent to saying Polynesians had made a noble sacrifice and France was at best grateful for it.

Over the years, pro-France and pro-independence parties have been in and out of power. For periods of months or one to three years, the pro-independence leader Oscar Temaru was president of French Polynesia (2004, 2005-2006, 2007-2008, 2009, 2011-2013), and during his time in power he initiated many policies to investigate the effects of nuclear testing and educate Polynesians and the world about the nuclear testing era. It was during this time that Bruno Barrillot was appointed by Temaru as lead researcher, and the Witnesses of the Bomb project was one of products of these efforts. Eight of the testimonies from the exhibit and related book have been translated and published below. The French version of the 37-page book is available as a free pdf download here.

This week, at the exhibition Polynesia Under the Bomb, Oscar Temaru stated the case for Polynesian independence, saying that in order for Polynesia to succeed at the International Court of Justice, it has to go as a sovereign nation, and in order to sign cooperative accords with France, the two nations have to negotiate as equal independent states. He called the existing Papeete Accords a great lie carried out with the complicity of our “elected sellouts.” [2]
Facebook group Moruroaetatou

The excerpts that follow are translations of testimonies in the Witnesses of the Bomb publication that was released in 2013. The French text, with the portrait photography, is available online at no cost. The video is an interview with researcher Bruno Barrillot about the project.

The English transcript can be found at the end of this article.
Excerpts from:
Witnesses of the Bomb
Témoins de la bombe, Les éditions Univers Polynésiens, 2013
(free pdf, in French).

Witnesses of the Bomb
Foreword: To give meaning to things unsaid

The big bang of the bomb has not finished propagating its waves through the Polynesian universe. There isn't really any scientific discourse, or even a rational discourse throughout these thirty-three testimonies. In effect, how could one be rational when the big bang has taken root in a nest of irrationality and denial of all humanity?
For the exhibition Witnesses of the Bomb, Marie-Hélène Villierme and Arnaud Hudelot have, each with their own art form, captured these Polynesian voices before they fade. In order to not forget.
Marie-Hélène, the photographer, has caught in these thirty-three portraits expressions of indignation in some, resignation in others, the emotions always overlaid with modesty.
Arnaud Hudelot, the director, effaced himself behind the testimonies of the witnesses. The videos reveal long monologs imprinted with memories that have now escaped being lost to time. They tell of unexplained mourning, endured in general indifference, and the fear in which one makes a tentative explanation of a social disruption still so poorly grasped.
This story is one of infinite sadness! Had these words ever been uttered on the nuclear atolls, how they could have had the power to frighten and dissuade. And still there is this bomb which, today, some dare not call by its name: "that thing," said Jacqueline. Or there are still these diseases with no name which the doctors refrain from qualifying. And there is still the remorse, barely concealed, in which some imagine themselves still guilty for having touched the money that came from the bomb.
There is hope, nonetheless, with this pride in having resisted, with bare hands, one could say, the steamrolling onslaught of a moneyed propaganda machine, with an ardent desire to construct a memory for the generations to come.
--Bruno Barrillot

2. Roland Oldham

Roland Oldham has been president of the organization Moruroa e tatou since its creation in 2001. He recalls protesting against the nuclear tests when he was sixteen years old.

Roland Oldham is well known for his severe criticism of politicians of French Polynesia who allowed themselves to be corrupted by the bomb money. “Many of our deciders, only because of this monetary gain, participated in this adventure. Even if they had doubts, it is a fact that the money was convincing enough, and the rare politicians who opposed the nuclear tests were harassed by the French state.

He denounces the policy of deterrence of the French state. “You have to understand that there is a propaganda machine that is very powerful. And I remember just ten years ago it was still very difficult to speak to journalists about the nuclear tests. The next morning, those who had dared speak of them would be ripped to shreds in the press. So, we have to look at the situation as it is: this machine was so strong that politicians, and even the churches in Polynesia, supported the nuclear tests because the economic fallout was important, and it was precisely this economic fallout that also overturned Polynesian society.”

He continues, “The State used a formula that worked fine for forty years. They bought support, then they conducted the tests. People closed their eyes and stuck to the lie. Today, I think the State is using the same formula that is proven to work. When we see our politicians taking advantage of the trend, of the work that has been done by our citizen groups, we see that they do it not so that the victims will be compensated. They go to the French state to negotiate for more money for general use, but it is not tied to an explicit policy that states how it will help Polynesia.

Roland Oldham is aware that many generations will have to keep up the fight against the consequences of the nuclear tests and that it is now essential to focus on the younger generations. “There were about 150 underground tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa, and that must be the highest concentration of nuclear tests on such small atolls. You have to wonder what’s going to happen when there have already been leaks and a good part of the Moruroa atoll has crumbled. There are real dangers that will be of concern to future generations. I think that one of the most important battles for Moruroa e tatou will be to make the younger generations aware of these dangers.”

“Establishing Moruroa e tatou was not simple because in 2001, there were still two clans in Polynesian society. There were those who thought the nuclear tests were not something good for society and for the environment, and they were considered to be anti-French, separatists, etc. Then there were those in the majority who had accepted and even promoted the “clean” nuclear tests. So, from the beginning it was a confrontation between these two clans: the separatists, represented by the Tavini Huiraatira Party, versus the party headed by Gaston Flosse, the Tahoeraa Huiraatira Party. We had to explain to the victims, to the population, that it wasn’t a political question, that the health consequences didn’t affect only members of the Tavini Huiraatira Party and spare members of the Tahoeraa Huiraatira Party. One must also understand that politicians were content to maintain this cleavage between the people. Today they take advantage of the work done by citizens groups, not so much to fight for compensation for the victims but to say to France, “Give us some money!”

3. Régis Gooding

Régis Gooding worked at Moruroa from the age of 16, at the time of the atmospheric tests, to "help his father feed his four brothers and three sisters." He tells how a kid of 16 could live so far from his family in such a dangerous workplace: a life that was practically a dream, full of unknown pleasures—cinema, water sports…
"It was a great life because we didn't have to worry about meals. Our laundry was done on the ship. We were there to get on with the work of the atomic bomb, but everything was done for us to make sure we wouldn't get bored. We were kept busy."
Régis describes the bomb, as he saw it from the ship he was based on at Moruroa, without forgetting all that was forbidden… "As if you could stop a Polynesian from eating fish!" Discrimination?
"After a detonation, the technicians from the CEA came with their equipment, gas masks, all covered up in white suits, with boots and gloves, while the Polynesians and local workers were in their sandals and shorts, longshoreman's wear, with nothing special. That was their work outfit.
Régis stayed only one year in Moruroa, but he became a soldier and was sent there in 1977 for a military mission. He witnessed the land collapsing after an underground detonation, and the tsunami that followed it. "It was after this that the legionnaires built a protective wall and installed security platforms."
Régis' father also worked at Moruroa. He was ill, but he was hired anyway by the CEA in Mahina. His eczema got so bad that they told him not to come back to work. He died finally of the cancer that had been called "eczema." Regis asks with resentment, "Why are such people who worked for the bomb forgotten? He was in Muru, he got skin cancer, but it's not his fault, so whose fault is it? Is it because he breathed Polynesian air that he got contaminated? Who brought this contamination here?"
"I was 16 when I started to work at the sites. I was a warehouseman. At that age, it was an adventure, but I also left in order to send something to my grandmother because my grandfather had just passed away. The hardest time was the evenings and the weekends, because you miss your family at that age. But there everything was done to make sure no one got bored. There were a lot of recreational activities: sailboarding, soccer, motorbikes, cinema, picnics--like living in a chateau or something! A friend of mine was stricken because he had eaten some fish. His skin fell off. He was admitted to the infirmary, then after that no one knew where he went. But among us, we knew how many sick ones there were. I have a lot of friends who have died. In 2002, I came back from the army and I found two or three friends, but I was told the others were all dead."

4. Chantal Spitz

Chantal Spitz described her first experiences as a protester against nuclear testing: "When I came back home I was always in trouble because it wasn't acceptable behavior for the dominant aristo-bourgeoisie."
After having described the shadowy connivance of a certain segment of Polynesian society with the colonial system, the author sums up the pain of her people: "We have just lived through 30 years so terrifying that I don't know if we can ever restore ourselves again, and what makes me afraid is that we are going to pass this pain on to our children and grandchildren because they won't have the tools to journey across this history.
Without the active participation of local authorities, the French state could never have done what it did here. At the same time, it is difficult to feel betrayed, betrayed by oneself. We believe we were betrayed by others. Why wouldn't we? But to have betrayed oneself, that's harder to face. I believe we can measure the poisons in the environment, eventually. We take measurements, record a certain level of radioactivity, see the dead coral. No problem. But how do we measure the poisons in our minds and in our souls? We can't measure them, and we can't even prevent ourselves from transmitting them to our children and grandchildren.
Chantal Spitz finishes on a note of pride. "But it was a great thing that we marched. It was—I don't want to say courageous—but we had to do it. We had to dare to do it.
A message of hope and dignity addressed to the younger generation?

5. Raymond Pia
Raymond Pia started to work at the CEP in 1968, and continued until 1996 when he retired. He was recruited by a sub-contractor, Sodetra, as a welder. Later he worked various trades, but he worked for a long time as a welder on the barges during the time of the aerial tests then during the underground tests. Raymond described his working conditions: “I worked there for the money. Before I signed my contract, they said nothing at all about the job involving risks. They had us sign that we would absolutely never say anything about what we saw. It was a state secret, and if we talked, we risked going to prison. But as for other kinds of risk, no, they indicated absolutely nothing about such problems.
Raymond describes more about what it was like. He wasn’t afraid at the time of a detonation because he and his Polynesian colleagues were not informed about the operations. “So we were there, and we didn’t worry much about what was going to happen. We ignored everything. We built platforms six meters high for the underground tests. The ground shook, and we saw the platform shake too. After thirty seconds it stopped, and we stayed on the platform until our bosses gave us the order to come down.”
“Today I can say that the life of Tahitians has totally changed. Today they have great difficulties because they have left their lands, their islands. They haven’t planted anything for themselves. They ate what was easy and fast, and now they are sick because of it.”
Six years after he retired, he learned he was sick. He had to go to France, to Villejuif, for radiotherapy. Raymond has one great concern: “My testimony is for the generations to come. It is they who will suffer the consequences. Today, it is obvious that there are many illnesses in Polynesia. In the past, these were unheard of. We are in our sixties now, but the youth, their future? It is too late. The damage is done. That’s my testimony.”
6. Jaroslav Otcenasek
Jaroslav Otcenasek worked from the first days of construction of the CEP installations in Tahiti. “Before that, I was working a little and I earned 20 francs a week. Working at the CEP, you could earn 140 francs per week. So you see the difference. This is what destabilized everything. Everyone gave up fishing, agriculture, raising animals. What you used to earn in three months could now be earned in a week. Everyone gorged on this, but without knowing the dangers that came with the bomb.”
Jaroslav explains the consequences of this CEP gold rush: “Everyone ran to Papeete. In the past we went there once a week or once a month just to buy necessities: flour, sugar, etc. But when the CEP arrived, even people from the outer islands swarmed to Papeete. There was one construction job after another. They left their lands and their islands to crowd into the city. Nowadays, it’s very difficult to get them to go back.”

Awareness of the dangers of the nuclear tests emerged slowly: “It took a certain number of years for us to start seeing our friends dying, or getting sick. It was always those who had worked on Moruroa or Fangataufa. When they came back, they were forbidden to speak about their work. If they talked, they got kicked out right away, and were never re-hired. So we believed the military was trying to hide something. But it took a long, long time. It was taboo to talk about it.” Jaroslav passes severe judgment on the period of the CEP: “For me, it was horrible because there was no benefit afterward. Now there are diseases and we have a troubled nation. I would like to say to young people: get up and fight until the day France recognizes what was done and apologizes for having harmed us. Then I will certainly be able to say I’m proud to be French.”
7. John Doom
Former Secretary General of the Maohi Protestant Church
John Doom had his first “experience” of the nuclear tests in 1963 when he was deacon of the French parish in Papeete. Along with Pastor Jean Adnet he had learned about the construction of the CEP, so they published a short article in the parish journal asking for a commodo-incommodo* public inquiry. Result: the pastor was banned from staying in Tahiti for more than six months!
Three years later, on July 2, 1966, John Doom found himself on the island of Mangareva [near the test sites] working as an interpreter for the minister of France d’Outre-mer [French overseas territories]. The history is well known. The Gambier Islands were heavily contaminated by the fallout from the first bomb on Moruroa, after which officials slipped away as fast as possible, leaving the local population uninformed.
Describing these weapons on the national broadcaster [ORTF, Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française], John recalls a report he had to make to the authorities explaining why he had broadcast, after a test, a message warning the inhabitants of the islands. As he was general secretary of the protestant church, John tells of the internal conflicts that existed because officially the church did not have a public position against the tests until 1982, saying then they were not without harm.
But since then, the opposition by the church has been strong and, since 1996, it has been on the side of the victims and has supported Moruroa e tatou.
It must be said that since 1989, John Doom has been Directeur du Bureau Pacifique du Conseil OEcuménique des Eglises à Genève, a strategic post that facilitates the internationalization of the struggle against the French nuclear tests.
“The first nuclear test took place on July 2, 1966. It so happened that I was the only functionary to have been authorized to accompany Minister Billotte, elected officials of T’uamotu and an elected representative of the territory, Mr. Gaston Flosse, who was originally from the Gambier Islands. So we left for Moruroa then headed to Mangareva. On July 2nd, early in the morning, we went up the mountain on Taku to see the mushroom cloud. I had to turn my back and put my hands on my eyes, then wait for the word that it was alright to look. I have to say I was disappointed because we had been told that there would be a beautiful mushroom made up of various colors, but all I saw was a kind of elongated cloud.”
“The next day we had to have a great feast with the inhabitants to celebrate the first detonation. But that night it rained, and the next day they told us we had to leave right away. I learned later that the rain was radioactive, that we had to leave, and that we had to say nothing about it. We left the inhabitants in complete ignorance. And I think that was the first lie of the French government because General Billotte, arriving in Papeete, held a press conference and stated that everything had gone well.”
John Doom is a pillar of the history of the opposition to the nuclear tests in Polynesia, a role which makes him encourage the younger generation to get involved: “The tests are over. That’s a fact, but we will live with the consequences for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It’s not something that’s over and behind us. You, the young generations, you must get involved. It is essential for the future of our people. Look around you. Ask questions to your parents. There is no family in Polynesia that wasn’t affected. Get together and concern yourselves with our future.”
Commodo/incommodo authorizations define the development and operating conditions deemed necessary to protect the environment and ensure the safety of workers, the public and the neighborhood in general.
8. Michel Arakino
Michel Arakino was born on the Reao Atoll and grew up there. Today he lives in Tahiti. Michel described his childhood memories: “It was fun for us, at the age of nine or ten, during the time of the nuclear tests. We went into houses with pressurized air to protect us from the fallout. But after the fallout passed, we went out to big boats off the coast. It was fun because they gave us candies, and they did medical checks on us. There were doctors there tracking everyone and watching over us.”
After his military service in France, Michel was hired by the army to work in the Service Mixte de Contrôle Biologique on Moruroa. “The Foreign Legion gathered soil from around the atoll and made a garden plot. Scientists studied the uptake of radioactivity in this garden. We weren’t protected as we should have been, but according to our supervisors there was no risk. We harvested watermelons, melons, sweet potatoes, cucumbers... The scientists said they were fine, and because they said so, we ate them. We put the leftovers in salads.”
Michel later became a diver, and he was tasked with taking water samples from the surfaces of underground wells. “We measured radioactivity leaking from openings made in the places where cables had been placed for the detonations. I wouldn’t say it was minimal exposure. There was measurable leakage in a zone 500 meters in diameter.”
Michel also related all the pressure put on him from the military and political sphere when he decided to join the citizens’ group Moruroa e tatou.
“From 1981 to 1996 I was a diver at Moruroa. My work consisted of taking biological samples from around the zones and in the zones where the detonations had occurred. At the first meeting of Moruroa e tatou, I came just to listen and tell my bosses what they were saying, but then I was especially struck by Dr. Sue Roff. I was sitting in the front row watching this woman explain the effects of radioactivity. Everything she said concerned me directly. I was the positive control organism in this experiment, and that’s when I realized what I was passing down to my children. That’s when I started asking questions to the authorities, and they quickly became hostile. What should I say? It was like we were no longer friends. The relationship was tarnished because I was asking too many questions about the state of my health.”
Note: Bruno Barrillot and John Doom both passed away in the latter months of 2016.

The question "Was Polynesia contaminated?" is not a question for the present. It's a certainty about what happened during the time of nuclear tests in the atmosphere. All of Polynesia was showered with radioactive fallout. There is no doubt about that. They even admit it. But they say, "For sure it was admissible. The norms of the time permitted it." That's the nonsense they tell us today.

When we demanded the opening of the archives of the classified files under the new law of two years ago, they found there were a few documents missing from the years 1966-67. What can be seen in these files stamped classified for national security? We see records of meetings of military authorities, the highest authorities, including the director and the high commissioner of the CEA [commissariat à l'énergie atomique], professor Rocard, the so-called father of the French bomb. They were all there around a table in Paris saying "Alright, we're going to do tests in French Polynesia. We will still have to be sure that there is no contamination of the population of Tureia and Mangareva because the people there are genetically fragile."

So they knew. It's written there in black and white! All those people there were visiting during the time of the tests saying they came to admire les vahines* of Mangareva or Tureia. They went to see the nature and the little flowers and said how lovely it was. They came acting in friendship to these people when they knew very well that their bombs were going to, shall we say, disrupt their health and the very life of these small, defenseless populations.

Sure, it's in the past. It was especially bad in the time of the atmospheric tests, but how can we measure the consequences for the present? It's in the health of the Polynesians. How many women and young Polynesians have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer among those who were children at the time of the atmospheric tests? I'm not saying every problem was caused by the nuclear tests. For sure there are many other possibilities that are related to modern lifestyles that came from the money brought by the nuclear tests, but we can still state that the nuclear tests had an impact on the serious problems in public health that exist here with, for example, the high rate of cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

This is taught. It is known, for example, from what happened in the Marshall Islands, what international specialists knew about illnesses caused by radiation. We know. We know it today. We know that it is not only cancers that come from contact with ionizing radiation. There are also many cardiovascular diseases. And genes are affected too. So this is known—officially. In fact, all this was known in the 1950s. The Americans had published studies on the survivors of Hiroshima, and on the first tests in the Marshall Islands.

In 1957-58, among the scientific community there was a sort of outcry. There were symposia of Nobel prize physicians throughout the Western world which said to the nuclear powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, stop atmospheric testing. And there were often more than one hundred parents among them. They were endangering the health of all humanity and so both the Soviet Union and the United States decided to stop the tests in October 1959: a moratorium.** And France began tests in 1960, but everything was known at the time. Everything was known.

And so today when some want to make excuses, and even when some Polynesian interlocutors, perhaps good Christians say, "OK, listen to the military people. When they came they didn't know everything about radioactivity." Not true. They knew everything.

They knew all about it. So, to be quite frank, I think there is absolutely no excuse. For a country the only reason that is has for nuclear tests is reasons of state. People: they matter very little. Workers, military personnel engaged in the process of conducting tests: they matter very little. It is reasons of state that matter.

* Vahine simply means woman in Polynesian, but the term is loaded with connotations of exoticism, eroticism and mythical fantasies about the women of the islands, projected on to them by men who came from the outside world.

** Mr. Barrillot may have got the date wrong. According to the table in Wikipedia's Nuclear weapons testing page: "USA agrees; ban begins on 31 October 1958, 3 November 1958 for the Soviets, and lasts until abrogated by a USSR test on 1 September 1961." Author's/translator's note: I always feel a bit lucky in this regard. I was born in August 1959, so the moratorium coincided with my conception and development until the age of 49 months. My mother and I were spared some exposure to the short-lived radionuclides in the global fallout.

This post was updated on March 16, 2019 


[2] Temaru dénonce les élus « vendus de notre pays », Radio 1 Tahiti, June 27, 2016,