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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 June 29, 2016