French Senate OKs Return of Nuclear Test Atolls to French Polynesia

PARIS, France, January 19, 2012 (ENS) – The Senate of France has passed legislation that transfers two Pacific atolls used for atmospheric and underground nuclear testing back into the public domain of French Polynesia.

The atolls of Mururoa and Fangataufa in the Tuamotu Archipelago of French Polynesia were ceded to France in 1964 to allow the French military to conduct the tests. More than 200 nuclear tests were conducted at the two atolls over a 30 year period ending in 1996, 40 of them atmospheric.

Senator Richard Tuheiava (Photo courtesy Senate of France)

Senator Richard Tuheiava, who represents French Polynesia, introduced the bill on January 11. It was passed and will now move to the French National Assembly.

The measure provides that the atolls, located in the middle of the South Pacific about halfway between Australia and South America, will again be under the domain of French Polynesia from January 1, 2014.

If the proposed legislation becomes law, the atolls would be returned to French Polynesia, but France would continue environmental remediation and monitoring of radiation and geomechanics there “in a sustainable manner.”

French atmospheric nuclear test over Mururoa, 1970 (Photo by French Army)

Radiation protection of people and monitoring devices would be provided by France in cooperation with French Polynesia and the municipalities of Tureia, Gambier, of Nukutavake and Hao, under “the precautionary principle enshrined in the Charter of the Environment 2004.”

The bill makes it a crime to undertake research for military purposes on the atolls, punishable by 15 years’ in prison and a fine up to 300,000 euros.

At least once a year, France’s Institute of Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety would conduct a fact-finding mission to analyze and measure radiation on the two atolls, and make the results of these missions public within a period of 12 months.

The bill provides for creation of a national commission under the Prime Minister of France to monitor the environmental consequences of nuclear testing on the atolls. The commission would produce a public report with follow-up every three years.

The commission would include the ministers of defense, health and environment of both France and French Polynesia, legislators from both countries, mayors of the local communities, and representatives of militry, civil and scientific associations in the field of environmental protection in French Polynesia.

French atmospheric nuclear test over Mururoa, 1971 (Photo credit unknown)

The commission also would conduct “monitoring of impacts and effects of global warming on the geomechanical stability and release of radionuclides from a dangerous part of the underground layers of the crown of the two atolls of Mururoa and Fangataufa,” the legislation provides, “based on radioactive waste in contact with water lagoon.”

The Minister of Defense would provide the commission with the information necessary to carry out its tasks, except for military secrets protected by law, the bill states.

The current French Defense minister, Gerard Longuet, says France has a duty to safeguard the information contained in the atolls, to prevent nuclear proliferation.

Moruroa, also spelled Mururoa, was the site of years of protests by Greenpeace and New Zealand peace groups aimed at stopping the nuclear weapons testing.

In 1972, Canadian Greenpeacer David McTaggert used his personal sailboat as a protest vessel. After sailing inside the exclusion zone around the atoll, McTaggert’s boat was boarded by French commandos. They damaged the vessel and and beat up McTaggert, who lost the sight of one eye but was able to save film of the incident and release it to the media.

The protests succeeded in 1974 when the French government announced the end of its atmospheric nuclear testing program. McTaggert became chairman and chief spokesman of Greenpeace in 1979, retiring in 1991.

Greenpeace protest ship sinks in Auckland, New Zealand, 1985. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)

In 1985 the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was bombed and sunk by France’s external intelligence agency, the DGSE, in Auckland, New Zealand, as it prepared for another protest of nuclear testing in French military zones. One crew member, photographer Fernando Pereira of Portugal, drowned on the sinking ship while attempting to recover his equipment. Two members of the DGSE were captured, sentenced and imprisoned, but eventually repatriated to France.

The other bombers were not arrested due to lack of evidence. In 1987, under international pressure, the French government paid $8.16 million compensation to Greenpeace.

French President Jacques Chirac’s decision to run a series of nuclear tests at Mururoa in 1995, just one year before the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was to be signed, caused worldwide protest.

Beach on Mururoa, 1969-1971 (Photo courtesy HEWNOS)

The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency says in a 1995 report on French atmospheric nuclear testing over the atolls, “With the exception of four tests (three at Mururoa and one at Fangataufa) carried out on barges floating in the lagoons, most atmospheric tests were carried out, suspended from balloons, hundreds of metres above the lagoons so that there was very little local fallout of radioactive material. Indeed, most of the radioactive material was transported into the upper atmosphere and dispersed.”

The IAEA report concludes there is little danger to people on the atolls or in the wider South Pacific, saying, “The radiation doses currently received by populations in the South Pacific region as a result of the residual radioactive materials remaining in Mururoa and Fangataufa are negligible fractions of natural background levels, and will continue to be so in the long term.”

The IAEA report recommended a program of measurement of radioactivity in the environment for scientific purposes and said monitoring would be useful “in assuring the public about the continuing radiological safety of the atolls.”

But in August 2006, an official report by the French government confirmed the link between an increase in cases of thyroid cancer on the atolls and France’s atmospheric nuclear tests.

France said on in March 2009 that it will compensate 150,000 victims of nuclear testing in French Polynesia and Algeria. An initial sum of 10 million euros was set aside for military and civilian staff and for local populations who became ill from radiation exposure.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.