France's Nuclear Testing Programme

Taourirt Tan Afella, Algeria, which was the location of the In-Ekker nuclear test site. (Photo courtesy of Couchot, www.moruroa.com).

Algeria

France was the fourth nation to join the “Nuclear Club” when it successfully detonated a large nuclear device in Algeria in 1960. Over the next five years, France conducted 17 nuclear weapons tests at two locations in Algeria. Four were atmospheric tests and 13 were detonated underground.

A 2005 report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency describes the failure of an attempt to contain the Béryl test on 1 May 1962 on the  north-east side of the test site at Taourirt Tan Afella. A spiral shaped tunnel which opened into the firing chamber had been designed to be closed off by the shock wave before the lava could reach the entrance of the tunnel. However, blocking of the main tunnel did not take place as planned. Between 5 and 10 percent of the test product’s activity escaped as lava, aerosols and gaseous products.

Arrangement of a tunnel used for weapon testing at Taourirt Tan Afella. (Photo courtesy of the IAEA. Radiological Conditions at the Former French Nuclear Test Sites in Algeria: Preliminary Assessment and Recommendations).

Tropical islands selected as location for nuclear teats

With Algeria’s independence in 1962, the French Defense Department started to look for alternative test sites. The uninhabited islands of Moruroa and Fangataufa in the South Pacific were chosen, with the main argument for the selection being that only 5,000 inhabitants lived within a 1,000 km radius of the proposed testing areas. However, the atoll of Tureia, with around 60 inhabitants, was only 100 km away from Moruroa and thus remained within the zone designated as dangerous.

France was not a signatory to the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) and established the Centre d'experimentation du Pacifique (CEP) at Moruroa in 1966. A total of 193 atmospheric and underground tests were conducted in the region over the next 30 years.

France was not a signatory to the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) and established the Centre d'experimentation du Pacifique (CEP) at Moruroa in 1966. A total of 193 atmospheric and underground tests were conducted in the region over the next 30 years.
General view (photograph taken in 1962) of the area contaminated by the Béryl test at Taourirt Tan Afella. (Photo courtesy of the IAEA. Radiological Conditions at the Former French Nuclear Test Sites in Algeria: Preliminary Assessment and Recommendations).

There have been several reported cases of rain-out i.e. fallout by rain formed by the particles of a nuclear explosion during the testing period. These cases are detailed in a report distributed by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research entitled Environmental Effects of French Nuclear Testing.

  • One such incident occurred in Samoa, 3,610 km from Moruroa, on 12 September 1966. This was a consequence of the test Betelgeuse the previous day, in which a 120 kiloton bomb hanging under a balloon was exploded at a height of 600 metres in difficult wind conditions.
  • After two tests within 17 days in 1966, radiation was measured on the nearby Gambier Islands at five times the permitted annual dose.
  • The atoll of Tureia was affected during the test series of June/July 1967, when two French meteorologists on Tureia were evacuated two days after a test and transferred to hospital. A complete evacuation of Tureia took place in 1968.
  • Another incident occurred at Tahiti on 19 July 1974, following a test of unknown yield and burst height a couple of days earlier. Radiation equivalent to the entire permitted annual dose was later measured in Tahiti.

Serious contamination to the environment

Environmental Effects of French Nuclear Testing details the environmental impact of the atmospheric tests in 1991. “The total amount of plutonium-239 dispersed as a result of the 45 announced French atmospheric tests, including the four in Algeria, would be about 6750 curies, assuming 150 curies per test. On this basis, the amount of cesium-127 and strontium-90 dispersed into the atmosphere would have been 1.7 million curies and 1.1 million curies of strontium-90 [see Chart 1] respectively. About one half of the cesium and strontium remains in the atmosphere, on the ground, and in water bodies. French testing in the Pacific was the source of almost all the atmospheric fission product contamination, due to the much larger number of tests and the far greater yields of the French tests there than in Algeria”

French nuclear bomb test at Mururoa Atoll, 1970.

Landslides, tsunamis and earthquakes caused by testing

From 1975, all nuclear blasts were carried out underground, causing both short-term and long-term environmental damage. At the time of the explosion, fracturing of the atoll surface triggered landslides, tsunamis and earthquakes. A report by the IPPNW and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research on the Environmental Effects of French Nuclear Testing found evidence that radionuclides were vented into the environment. Possible long-term effects include leakage of fission products to the biosphere and transfer of dissolved plutonium from the lagoon to the ocean and the food chain. A number of scientific missions to Moruroa described severe impairment to the atoll. The damage included fissures in the limestone which are propagated by the testing, and surface subsidences of large areas of the atoll.

At least one major test-related landslide and consequent tsunami occurred in Moruroa on 25 July 1979. The report on the Environmental Effects of Nuclear Testing claims that a 120 kiloton weapon that was being tested, became stuck inside the shaft and could not be dislodged but was exploded anyway. The explosion resulted in a major underwater landslide of at least one million cubic metres of coral and rock and created a vast cavity. The underwater landslide produced a major tidal wave comparable to a tsunami, which spread through the Tuamotu Archipelago and injured people on the southern part of Moruroa.

Radionuclides detected in marine organisms

A mission in 1983 to Moruroa comprising scientists from Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea identified unusual concentrations of iodine-131 (I-131) in marine organisms. Krypton-85 and tritium (see Chart 1) were also discovered in the air and water, indicating that venting had occurred. In 1987, a mission to the region by the scientist and researcher, Jacques Cousteau, found raised levels of I-131 in all sediment samples and plankton. Since I-131 has a short half life of 8.05 days, its presence could only be attributed to a recent emission.

The Australian, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea Mission to Moruroa in 1983 discovered that plutonium-239 concentrations in the air were about four times greater than in continental France.

Pristine marine environment used as nuclear dumping ground

The underground tests conducted at Moruroa turned it into a long-term waste dump, according to the IPPNW. Nuclear wastes existed under the atoll, without any of the ordinary safeguards that apply to a nuclear waste repository. The land area was also used to store radioactive waste (including metal scrap, wood, plastic bags and clothing) on the north coast of the atoll, which covers 30,000 square metres. In addition, a bomb broke apart on the surface of Moruroa on 21 July 1966, dispersing plutonium-239, which was confined to the area by fixing it in place with a layer of bitumen. Cyclones hit Moruroa in 1981, washing radioactive waste from the coral rim into the lagoon, including the plutonium-based bitumen.

The report on the Environmental Effects of French Nuclear Testing maintains that such waste management practices have resulted in the sediment of the lagoon containing an estimated 20 kilograms of plutonium (see Chart 1). The Australian, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea Mission to Moruroa in 1983 discovered that Plutonium-239 concentrations in the air were about four times greater than in continental France. About 75 percent of the caesium and strontium that were dispersed remained underground for many years and some may have found its way into the lagoons and ocean.

Moruroa was also used as a safety trial area. Safety trials aim at checking whether an atomic bomb will explode on impact with a hard surface. In the case of a "safe" bomb, or a "successful" safety trial, the impact does not cause a nuclear detonation but breaks apart the bomb, scattering plutonium-239 about the site.

Map of French Polynesia

Food chain affected

Tilman Ruff’s 1989 article Ciguatera in the Pacific: a link with military activities provides evidence that plutonium-239 accumulated in the food chain. Ciguatera fish poisoning was a major public health problem in parts of French Polynesia. Nuclear test explosions and the construction of supporting infrastructures have been linked with ciguatera outbreaks in the region: Hao Atoll, the staging base for the testing from 1965, experienced its first ciguatera outbreak in 1966; the Gambier Islands, the site of the construction of military facilities, in 1968, and Moruroa in 1981.

Surveys conducted to assess the environmental impact

Between 1966 and 1996, four independent missions were permitted to conduct investigations: a French scientific mission in 1982; an Australian, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea scientific mission in 1983; the Cousteau scientific mission in 1987; and the mission of the Associated French Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (AMFPGN) in 1990. All missions ranged from three to five days and their access to relevant data, sites, or samples, such as coral and sediment from within the lagoon and specific areas of the atoll was limited.

After its last nuclear test in 1996, the French government requested the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conduct a study to assess the radiological impact of the tests. This study was carried out between 1996 and 1998, and a full report was published in 1998 under the title The Radiological Situation at the Atolls of Mururoa and Fangataufa. The objectives of the study were to determine whether "as a consequence of the tests, radiological hazards exist now or will exist in the future" and to make "recommendations of any monitoring, follow-up or remedial action that might be required."

The study concluded that no remedial action was justified on radiological protection grounds and that there was no need for further monitoring at the atolls for the purposes of radiological protection. However, the study recommended that a programme of measurement of radioactivity in the environment could be useful, not only scientifically but also in assuring the public about the continuing radiological safety of the atolls.

An article by Sandra Radu Assessing the Impact of France’s Nuclear Tests featured in the Spring 2001 issue of the Harvard International Review criticizes the IAEA’s findings on the following grounds: “First, much of the information used in the report was provided by the French government. The information was, "where practicable," validated by an independent sampling and surveillance campaign, yet this campaign was also conducted with "the consent and support" of French authorities.

“Even if the integrity of the findings were beyond question, the report leaves out several important indicators of the nuclear assays' impact. The report did not attempt to assess the doses received by inhabitants of the region as a result of the atmospheric nuclear tests at the time when those tests were carried out. Yet these data seem to be the most relevant, as they represent the upper boundary of the radioactive exposure of the atolls' inhabitants. In addition, the report claimed that "it is not possible to place reliable quantitative limits on the errors associated with the dose assessments." Although the IAEA's estimated future doses are in fact the upper limits measured, there is still considerable uncertainty as to the range of error these doses span.”

Health effects

The French nuclear test veterans' association, Aven, conducted a survey in 2008 of more than 1,000 veterans and found that 35 percent had one or more types of cancer and one in five were infertile. According to Aven, veterans have suffered a range of illnesses, including cancers of the blood and cardiovascular problems, and their children and grandchildren are also suffering health complications.

A study conducted between 2002 and 2005 of thyroid cancer sufferers in Tahiti who had been diagnosed between 1984 and 2002, established a "significant statistical relationship" between cancer rates and exposure to radioactive fallout from French nuclear tests.

Another survey carried out by an official French medical research body, Inserm, in September 2006 found a "small but clear" increase in thyroid cancer among people living within 1,300 km of the nuclear tests conducted on French-owned Polynesian atolls between 1969 and 1996.

Compensation

For several decades, the soldiers and civilians who worked on France's nuclear testing programme fought for compensation for the cancer and long-term health effects they blame on the state's failure to protect them.

For four decades, the official view expressed by the French government and the military was that the nuclear tests in the Pacific had not had any detrimental effects. However, in November 2008, France announced the introduction of a bill to compensate those suffering illnesses related to nuclear testing among the 150,000 military personnel and civilians who had worked on the tests in Algeria and the Polynesian atolls. The government also stated that it would no longer appeal when courts ruled against the state in cases brought by nuclear test veterans suffering health problems who complained that they had been denied disability pensions.

On 9 January 2009, France agreed to spend over US$ 80 million to rehabilitate the atoll of Hao, which was a key military base during the 30 years of nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific.

On 25 March 2009 the French Ministry of Defence offered 10 million Euros (US$13.5 million) as compensation to victims of its nuclear testing programme.


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