Brothers in Nuclear Arms: Testimony of a Veteran of French Nuclear Tests

Brothers in Nuclear Arms:
Testimony of a Veteran of French Nuclear Testing

One of my goals with this blog has been to share the voices of the people affected by nuclear exploits and accidents. It wasn't supposed to be this way at the start of the age of reason, but science came to be a servant of power, a tool for constructing ignorance, motivated to make human bodies and human suffering invisible.[1] While there is no dispute that the oral histories of holocaust survivors constitute a corroborated, objective truth about what happened in Europe 1930-1945, the oral histories of nuclear victims are still met with official dismissal, no matter how methodically they are compiled.
In recent posts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) I covered the testimonies of Polynesians who lived during the era of French nuclear tests (1966-1996), but that chapter would not be complete without the voices of the civilians and soldiers who came from France for tours of duty in the nuclear Pacific. Some of these were published in the book described below, but no English edition exists. This testimony told here does not come from this book. It is told by Jean-Paul Vimare, a French veteran who was posted on the Fangataufa atoll in 1974-1975. He has told his story throughout several blog posts written in recent years, and some of that content has been compiled and translated here. (Photos and articles used with permission. Do not re-use this material without proper credit or permission).

      When the travel writer Paul Theroux journeyed through the South Pacific in the 1990s he noticed that he was on a trip like no other he had ever experienced. The islands were so small and the distances so vast that he felt like he was journeying across a constellation.[2] This part of the world is a paradise, but one can also feel a profound melancholy on these remote beaches, the last places on earth to be touched by human feet. So imagine how it would be to come here at the age of twenty or so from metropolitan France, sent on a mission like a space traveler in this alien constellation, then you were told to take up your post in a military hospital ten kilometers from ground zero of a few upcoming nuclear bomb tests.
      Jean-Paul's writing conveys an everlasting sadness and anger about the assignment he was given in the nuclear testing program, but his words also convey a profound love for his brothers in nuclear arms, all mixed with an ambivalent nostalgia for the defining adventure of his youth in a poisoned paradise. He was indulged with great freedom and leisure, but it was all a setup for a devastating disillusionment. How could he not be haunted for the rest of his life by such a surreal experience, especially when the health effects on his comrades, himself and his children slowly revealed themselves over the ensuing decades?[3]

Jean-Paul's story follows the text below—a historical backgrounder given by the publisher's blurb for Les irradiés de la République.

The Irradiated of the Republic: Testimonies of the French nuclear test victims.
Bruno Barrillot, Les irradiés de la République: Les victimes des essais nucléaires français prennent la parole (Complex, 2003).

There were 150,000 of them, most of them young men. They were poorly informed, or completely uninformed, about the risks of radioactivity. They were even dis-informed. For example, this is what the personnel were told by military authorities: "Ninety seconds after the explosion, all the debris has fallen back to the surface and there is no danger from radiation." Residual radiation? It is "so low that it constitutes no danger. Do not concern yourself with it." Were they naïve? Respectful of authority? They were proud to participate in this grand adventure which, they were told, would lift France to the level of the great powers. And what memories would they bring back from the Sahara desert or the island paradises of the Pacific? "It was well-known that the bomb was a deadly thing, but when it exploded, I was fascinated by this artificial sunrise." And they were told then, as they are told today, that these bombs were "clean," so what harm could possibly follow? They wouldn't find out, the lucky ones, for another ten, twenty or thirty years, when cancers and other illnesses would affect them. At last, they have spoken, emerging from the silence and the forgetting created by the requirement of military secrecy. At last, they are fighting so that "truth and justice" can be brought to the victims of nuclear tests.

Witness: Jean-Paul Vimare

To the president who gave us la force de la frappe,

From your time, Monsieur de Gaulle, to our times, people have struggled to expose the truth of the nuclear tests that were carried out in Algeria and in the Pacific. In full knowledge of the effects, you sent us to those distant atolls. You made us live in zones of contamination without dosimeters. In your nuclear folly, you sacrificed us, Polynesian workers, personnel of the military and the CEA (Commissariat à l'énergie atomique), volunteers or not. Thousands of us are already dead amid a widespread indifference. This is why I created my blog.

It was not a "great opportunity" to have worked for the tests, as some have told me. It's just a fact. I was young and I did know the word "radioactivity," but I didn't know anything about it. I saw four atmospheric tests in 1974, and the first two underground tests in 1975. It was only many years later that I began to understand what a mistake it all was.
France used us and used Polynesians, who were always called on to do the lowliest tasks. They were like the liquidators of Moruroa, sent out to pick up debris with their bare hands. In this photo they were holding the fish they would eat, fish saturated in Strontium 90.

We forget too often the men who worked at these sites.
I took these photos on the go.
They were there to earn their living,
to support their families.
The word radiation meant nothing to them.
They didn't wonder about it much.
They were among us.
What became of them,
I do not know.
Wherever you are, my friends,
we will not forget you.

I sometimes went on radiobiological missions in affected zones. I took photos that I developed myself. Outside the "zone of life," it was a ghastly scene. There was barbed wire and debris from Canopus (the hydrogen bomb of 1968) everywhere. Blocks of concrete, twisted metal scrap, heaps of refuse, rusted barrels full of I don't know what. It was barren of vegetation in some places, scattered with vitrified rock and piles of rubbish of all kinds.
How many Polynesian workers and veterans have died prematurely after being irradiated? 10,000? 20,000? In fact, no reliable statistic was ever sought. It would just be embarrassing.
We will never know how to repay you for your lies, your Lies of State.
France lied to us, and it continues to do so. With 193 tests, the French state polluted French Polynesia. France allowed itself to do this with impunity, disdained by all neighboring populations. Besides the tests, it disposed of hundreds of tons of nuclear waste in territorial waters.

La Dépêche de Tahiti, August 10, 2012
Jean-Paul Vimare

  • On the Fangataufa atoll, what was the point of all those signs that said "Danger: Risk of Contamination"?
  • What was all the barbed wire for? What protection was it supposed to offer?
  • Why was all the coral debris vitrified?
  • Why did the nuclear testing regime provide us with so many diversions and luxuries? (The great food, the leisure activities—it was practically a Club Med.)
  • Why didn't we have dosimeters?
  • Why didn't we have Geiger counters?
  • Why didn't we have potassium iodide pills at the infirmary during the nuclear tests?
  • At the hospitals on the site, why were there no instructions specific to radiological accidents to prepare us in case of trouble during the tests?
  • Why were we not trained and equipped in how to safely take samples of radioactive water? After the Achilles test, wearing only shorts and tongs, I had to walk out in a state of dread on a cracked rock slab to take a sample.
  • Why are there so many blocks of pulverized concrete and piles of old bunkers?
  • Why has vegetation not re-grown in certain areas?
  • Why was I hospitalized by a civilian doctor in a military hospital in Lorient?
  • Why was I sterile for so many years?
  • Why, in certain military files, were afflictions suffered in Moruroa and Fangataufa (the bomb test sites) registered as having originated in Papeete, 1,200 kilometers away?
  • Why were these tests "without danger" not conducted in France, or since they actually were so dangerous, not in the near-Antarctic islands of Kerguelen, as was proposed at one time?
  • Why are the archives on the Polynesian tests not declassified? Is the truth too unsettling?
  • Why are the people like me, who were in the line of fire, dying prematurely?

That's enough questions. My personal photos show very well that we were living in a nuclear wasteland. Now it is a certainty that Moruroa will collapse, like an aging, cracking block of Gruyère cheese, and no one will be able to say that we were not warned by certain scientists. It is a fragile crown of coral, an eggshell. The Fangataufa atoll has become one of the largest nuclear waste sites in the global history of nuclear weapons tests, completely beyond the reach of the law.

I arrived in Fangataufa on a sunny afternoon. It was here that I was coming to live with my companions in misfortune, in the midst of this radioactive wasteland.

The infirmary
I had already learned a bit about this atoll situated 45 kilometers from Moruroa, where I had worked at the Hôpital des Sites. The photo below, which needs no further comment, was taken at Moruroa. I don't know which test it is, and it doesn't matter which it was. We got used to such sights. It is impossible to describe or inscribe such events. Fangataufa could be called life in the great outdoors, tropical island outpost, abandoned and dismantled in 1976.

Fangataufa is one of the most radioactive places on earth. Following its closure, it served as a storage site for wastes coming from Moruroa, which had also been destroyed. These atolls are considered to be gone, lost forever to the long night of time. What a shame. They were beautiful, even in the chaotic, highly radioactive conditions left by Canopus in 1968—a 2.6 megaton hydrogen bomb—that's 2.6 million tons of TNT exploded just 1.5 kilometers from the so-called "zone of life." In contrast, the 15 kiloton bomb in Hiroshima (15,000 tons of TNT) killed 75,000 people.

The health services of the nuclear sites served all branches of the military. The hospital was quite important. We could handle medical and surgical emergencies immediately, but the services were completely inadequate in case of a large disaster, especially a nuclear accident. In any case, there were no special preparations before a detonation. That was in 1974. I don't know what it was like after that.
The life of an orderly at the infirmary in Fangataufa was easy, pampered in fact. We did what we wanted at our island base. Good wine, great food, little discipline. I would understand only much later the reason for this largesse. It looked like paradise, but we were walking in shit.

The inhabitants of this base, which functioned for only a short time (1970 to 1976), were called "zonards" or "Fangatiens." It is still not well understood that this place was completely contaminated. One can only assume it was, though, even if it has never been confirmed officially. After four atmospheric tests and ten underground tests in such a small place, could there be any doubt? I have my suspicions, with this personal account of the place, that the leaders of our fine country took us for fools, as they did our Polynesian friends. It was a great achievement for France. It is the only nation to have successfully erased two atolls, Moruroa and Fangataufa, from the planet. That's la force de la frappe.

The atoll is like the inverse of a natural landscape. One could call it the kingdom of flies and concrete. This photo is particularly meaningful. In the foreground, we can see the fly-repellent barbed wire, as well as a sign warning about the contaminated zone. I took the liberty of removing some of the barbed wire during one of my missions, as I noticed it was failing to serve its purpose. There were just as many flies on one side of it as on the other. But the sign stayed in place. I joke about this photo because it is the only way to deal with it. I took this photo from the infirmary, so that indicates how close it was to the danger zone.

This one was taken from the place on the other side of the Zone Empereur, a lunar landscape, razed, totally vitrified in some places. I know there were installations made of metal there. They melted under the power of the shot, and the rest was thrown into the ocean. I shudder to think of the fearless guys who cleaned up in these places.

A bunker in the forbidden zone, surrounded with anti-radiation barbed wire.

And one day it was time to leave my best mates. Departures were always very moving. Adieu, Fangataufa, once again you are left to the birds, and it is better that way.


The above text was compiled, edited and translated, with permission, from the blogs of Jean-Paul Vimare:

For more images, see this fifteen minute video slideshow of the nuclear testing era in Moruroa and Fangatauga: Les Essais Nucléaires Francais

For more background on French nuclear tests in the Pacific, read:

"Leaked report raised fears of radioactive tsunami if Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia collapses," The Watchers, August 19, 2012, http://thewatchers.adorraeli.com/2012/08/19/leaked-report-raised-fears-of-radioactive-tsunami-if-mururoa-atoll-in-french-polynesia-collapses/  


[1] Kate Brown, Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (University of Chicago Press, 2015) See chapter 4 Bodily Secrets for more description of the ways governments made human bodies and human suffering invisible in official studies and compensation programs.

[2] Paul Theroux, The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific (G.P. Putnam, 1992).

[3] Talk of permanent genetic effects and destabilization of the genome of future generations is often looked upon as the stuff of deranged conspiracy theories; however, the sources listed in this note show the phenomenon has been documented by large-scale studies of nuclear victims. Besides, it is uncontroversial that the damage can be induced in the laboratory in plants, animals and microbes.

1 comment: