French Polynesia: Witnesses of the Bomb

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. Three 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
Witness: 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."

Witness: 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?

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 June 29, 2016 


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

1 comment:

  1. Merci Dennis, tout ça prend bonne forme. Avec beaucoup de persévérance, et surtout du temps, je je suis persuadé que tes nouvelles pages vont marcher. Bien à toi.
    Jean-Paul. https://www.facebook.com/EssaisNucleaireDuPacifique/?fref=nf