France’s nuclear legacy haunts French Polynesia

French nuclear test

Last December, the United Nations General Assembly addressed France’s nuclear legacy in French Polynesia in its annual statement on decolonisation. The UN resolution “requests the Secretary-General, in cooperation with relevant specialised agencies of the United Nations, to compile a report on the environmental, ecological, health and other impacts as a consequence of the 30-year period of nuclear testing in the territory.” The call for international scrutiny came as France’s Senate passed amendments to the Morin law, the French legislation which governs compensation for people affected by radioactive fallout.

After conducting 17 atmospheric and underground tests in Algeria, France relocated its nuclear test centre to French Polynesia in the early 1960s. For 30 years between 1966 and 1996, France conducted a further 193 atmospheric and underground nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls. After the end of nuclear testing in 1996, citizens groups called on Paris to address the lingering health and environmental impacts of the testing programme. Today, former military and civilian personnel who staffed the nuclear test sites continue to campaign for clean-up of contaminated islands and compensation for people affected by exposure to radiation.

French military personnel formed the Association of Nuclear Test Veterans (AVEN), while in French Polynesia, the Moruroa e Tatou Association links former test site workers to lobby for French compensation. Both groups gained support from the Temaru government after 2004, which established the first French Polynesian inquiry into the health and environmental effects of nuclear testing. The UPLD government also established the Délégation pour le suivi des essais nucléaires (Office to monitor the nuclear tests), led by researcher Bruno Barrillot. However, one of the first acts of the re-elected Flosse government in June 2013 was to dismiss Barrillot and close the office.

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