French Nuclear Tests in the South Pacific: 1966-1996 and Beyond

This week's post is an overview of the history of French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, told without further ado in four excerpts and translations from various sources: a news report on the present status of the compensation program for Polynesian victims of nuclear testing, an interview with an expert on this issue, Bruno Barrillot (video with English subtitles), a plea to halt nuclear testing made by a Polynesian politician to Charles de Gaulle in 1966, and a poignant testimony of a victim posted recently on the Facebook page Les Oubliés du nucléaire.

In the present context (December 2015) this history raises many questions about how the victims of nuclear testing are supposed to judge the high ideals held up by France and other nuclear powers as they react to the emerging unrest within and without their borders. Are we as great as we say we are? Why do they hate us for our (vanishing) freedoms? If freedom ever had anything to do with it, it was the freedom to destroy.



French nuclear tests in the South Pacific in the 1960s and 1970s were far more toxic than has been previously acknowledged and hit a vast swath of Polynesia with radioactive fallout, according to newly declassified ministry of defense documents which have angered veterans and civilians' groups… Tahiti… was exposed to 500 times the accepted maximum radiation level from nuclear tests in the 20th century…

Thousands of veterans, families and civilians still fighting for compensation over health issues have insisted France now reveal the full truth about the notorious tests whose impact was kept secret for decades…

From 1960 to 1996, France carried out 210 nuclear tests, 17 in the Algerian Sahara and 193 in French Polynesia in the South Pacific… For decades, France argued that the controlled explosions were clean…

Bruno Barrillot, who has investigated the impacts of the nuclear tests for the Polynesian government, complained of the high levels of thyroid cancers and leukemia in Polynesia. He said the declassified documents revealed Tahiti had "literally been showered with plutonium for two days" during the Moruroa test; from the outset France knew the impact spread further than it publicly admitted. But of the 2,050 pages declassified, 114 remained blacked out…

It was not until 2010 that France acknowledged that there could be a compensation process for veterans and civilians… About 150,000 veterans and civilians worked on, or were present during, nuclear tests, including 127,000 in Polynesia. But of 800 dossiers, only 11 people have received compensation…
Troops who worked on the tests have described a staggering lack of precaution for workers… one veteran described how he was stationed in shorts and a T-shirt on a boat only about 15 miles from the explosion before having to sail immediately to the area of the vast mushroom cloud to examine the damage.
Others on different tests wore shorts and had no sunglasses…

Interview with Bruno Barrillot, an expert in the history of France's nuclear testing era (9 minutes)

Video with French and English subtitles (9 minutes).
This video was produced by OM5TV (la chaîne d'information de l'Outre-Mer), the television network for French overseas territories. This was a segment of the show Les Matins de Lénaïk broadcast in October 2014. I added French and English captions to this interview with Bruno Barrillot, an expert in the history of France's nuclear testing era. Click on CC or the settings icon to select English or French subtitles. Uploaded with the claim of fair use for non-commercial educational purposes.

Words of John Teariki, member of the Polynesian Assembly, to French President Charles de Gaulle on his visit to Tahiti, September 7, 1966

Could you, Mr. President, apply in Polynesia, the excellent principles that you recommended in Phnom Penh to our American friends, and send back your troops, your bombs and your planes?
If you do so, later, stricken with leukemia and cancer, we will not be able to accuse you of being the agent of our misfortune.
If you do so, our future generations will not have to reproach you for the birth of monsters and deformed children.
If you do so, the friendship between the people of the South Pacific and the people of France will not be tarnished by the shadow of atomic clouds.
If you do so, you will set for the world an example dignified of France: for the first time, without fear, without blackmail, without bargaining, a great nation, breaking the satanic wall of mistrust, will renounce for itself the use of the murderous atom, will proclaim its faith in reason and the future of mankind in calling on all the people of the world to become companions in the liberation of the world.
If you do so, Polynesia will be, unanimously, proud and happy to be French, and, as in the first days of a liberated France, we would all become again, here, your best and most faithful friends.
From the excellent Facebook page covering the history of French nuclear tests: Les oubliés du nucléaire (Nuclear's Forgotten Ones)

This page is not affiliated with any organization. I created it as if by accident. There is and will be no complacency here. We have just one goal: to bear witness to what we lived through with our Polynesian friends during the era of nuclear weapons tests. Our goal is also to finish with nuclear. Say "NO!!!" for future generations.

"Finding truth is discovery. Lying is invention."


Good day. Here is the type of message I receive every day. It is very difficult to deal with. I don't know how to respond...

Thank you for having thought of us, inhabitants of Mereoro of Hereheretue, an atoll that lies halfway between Tahiti and Moruroa. In 1971, I was posted to Hereheretue. We were a team of six meteorologists. Two tests, then they all died of leukemia.

They were aerial tests, and at that time we drank rain water. We were on the island while the population had been sent to Tahiti.

I think of the families who lost a son, a father, a grandfather. They are always in my memory and I praise them to the Lord and the Virgin Mary for rebirth. For my friends who died for the glory of France, for the sacrificed and nuclear's forgotten ones, find Peace, Joy and above all Forgiveness and the love of God. Amen. Glory, glory Hallelujah. Glory, glory Hallelujah. Jesus Christ has saved us. Praise God. Amen. Hallelujah.  - Charles


Transcript of the interview with Bruno Barrillot on France's overseas television network, 2014/10/01

Lénaïk Bertho: We are going to talk about nuclear history with our next guest, Bruno Barrillot, a specialist in nuclear testing. He is well known in Polynesia, and he has been invited to the International Science Film Festival in Paris. Bruno, welcome. You are well known in Polynesia because you stayed there many years. You were hired by the government and you have written books on the subject.
Bruno Barrillot: Yes, many books. The last one that was published in Tahiti, Witnesses of the Bomb, which is also a program of audiovisual materials of the witnesses, was created to preserve the memory of the era.
LB: What was your assignment?
BB: My assignment was, in fact... I have been a specialist in the field of nuclear testing since Rainbow Warrior incident [1985], so I'd written quite a bit on this topic. When the government of Oscar Temaru… when Oscar Temaru came to power in 2004, they called on me to conduct a commission of inquiry for the Polynesian Assembly on the nuclear tests, on the consequences and so on. And so for six months I worked with the elected officials and we prepared a report of recommendations then they said to me, "OK, listen, you have all these recommendations, so you have to implement them. Can you continue?" I was available. I went for six months, and ended up staying for eight years until they chased me out because Gaston Flosse, when he came to power, was eradicating the memory of that entire period. So they tried to push out, slowly but surely, everyone who held the memories of the nuclear testing era.
LB: It must be said about these tests that there are a lot of documents that were classified that could not be given to the public, so was it also your mission to have these documents declassified?
BB: There was a declassification of documents, yes, certainly we obtained, within a year, the first official documents, officially declassified. It was the socialist government that did it. They didn't give us all of them.
LB: Some are still classified?
BB: A lot are still classified, but we got some, and these were important. We can't forget that, but also the testimonies are very important because people saw, heard and lived through so much and that is just as important as the technical documents held by the Ministry of Defense.
LB: French nuclear tests were conducted in the Sahara and in Polynesia. Each year in August there is a day dedicated to the memory of nuclear tests. In your opinion, is this an important event?
Yes, certainly. We have to remember this at the international level. It was the initiative of Kazakhstan. Many of the Soviet tests were conducted in Kazakhstan. So the government of Kazakhstan established this day, August 29th, to...
LB: …to inform…
BB: …to commemorate… and at the international level. And this is important because the consequences are not… the experiences of nuclear testing are not only local. It's an international concern and it hasn't ended, not only in terms of the health and the environment of the people who were involved in conducting the tests or who lived nearby. These nuclear weapons still exist in the world.
LB: Does that mean that all the sites have not been cleaned?
BB: To my knowledge there is almost no nuclear testing site... there are about... in total... for sure there are 5, 7, 8 nuclear powers, but there are close to about twenty sites in the world, entire atolls, especially in the Pacific, zones in Australia on ancient aboriginal territory. There is a zone in Kazakhstan where the Soviets did more than 600 tests. And the Chinese conducted tests on zones inhabited by the Uighur minority... the Sahara... None of these places has been rehabilitated.
LB: Are the consequences of the tests proven now? Because there are nonetheless victims who have been compensated—a few, but there have been some. This means that some effect has been acknowledged.
BB: Well, there was, we could say, the first wave of compensation. It was the United States that started first. There were some programs that began for the tests in the Marshall Islands then for those that were done in Nevada. And so since 1988… they have had a compensation program for the victims that functions relatively well because they adopted the principle of presumption of a link with nuclear testing. If a person is sick, has a cancer, and he was there or nearby…
LB: …it is presumed to have come from that.
BB: And there is compensation.
LB: Can France do the same thing?
BB: France wanted to do the same thing. It was a law called the Morin law, in 2010, the so-called law of January 5th, 2010, but it is a law, which in principle, allows for presumption, but there is an exception. People can demand that their application for compensation be filed. Their demand is accepted except if the committee that is charged with examining the files considers that these people were at a negligible risk. This is in the French law, and so of all the files that have been submitted, about 90% have been rejected because they replied that these people had been exposed to negligible risk from nuclear testing.
LB: I see. Have you heard of the new decree regarding the strengthening of the procedures for compensating victims?
BB: Yes, of course, on September 18th, so it's recent and this new decree strengthens the reform because it recognizes that a compensation law that compensates practically no one… They have to at least... It served no purpose, so last December there was a change made to the law, thanks to a Green Party senator, Corinne Bouchoux, and so finally since September 18th, there is a decree which is of some interest.
LB: It can finally work… The victims can finally submit their applications.
BB: So, yes, they will be able to submit their applications, but what is interesting is that the Compensation Committee which used to be under the Ministry of Defense is now an entity which is independent of the Ministry of Defense. It is now within the Ministry of Health. So now it will not be seen to be controlled by the Ministry of Defense.
LB: So there is some progress.
BB: There is, step by step, some hope that there will be compensation before everyone concerned has died.
LB: Can the family apply for compensation when a victim has died?
BB: Yes, there are what they call "the entitled" who have the possibility of asking for compensation that was owed to a person who has passed away.
LB: OK, so it doesn't end when the victim passes away.
BB: No. A widow suffers a loss for example, but this is not covered by the law. This means…
LB: Even with this new decree.
BB: Even with this new decree.
LB: I see.
BB: So, for example, a widow loses a husband, who died at 40 years old, then she has to raise her children on her own. This is a hardship for this woman and for her children to no longer have a husband or father, and yet such loss is not covered under the law.
LB: Well, in any case the law has progressed. We'll talk about it for sure on our show with Corinne Bouchoux. Most of all, thank you. While you were in town for the International Science Film Festival, I wanted to invite you to be on our show. Thank you very much for having accepted our invitation.
BB: Thank you and best wishes.
Books by Bruno Barrillot: "I'd written quite a bit on this topic."

Bruno Barrillot, Les essais nucléaires français 1960-1996: Conséquences sur l’environnement et la santé, 1ère éd (Lyon: Cdrpc, 2015).
Bruno Barrillot, Victimes des essais nucléaires : histoire d’un combat (Lyon: CDRPC, 2010).
Bruno Barrillot, Les irradiés de la République : Les victimes des essais nucléaires français prennent la parole (Bruxelles; Bruxelles; Lyon: Complexe, 2003).
Bruno Barrillot, Audit atomique: Le coût de l’arsenal nucléaire français, 1945-2010 (Lyon, France: CDRPC, 1999).
Bruno Barrillot, L’héritage de la bombe : Polynésie Sahara 1960-2002, Les faits, les personnels, les populations (Lyon, France: CDRPC, 2002).
Bruno Barrillot & Heinui LeCaill, Moruroa, la bombe et nous, Délégation pour le suivi des conséquences des essais nucléaires (DSCEN), 2011, http://www.sortirdunucleaire75.org/pdf/2011_Moruroa_la_Bombe_et_nous.pdf (free ebook)

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