French misbehaviour in the Pacific Ocean
Marianne Aanerud was ship's doctor on board Statsraad Lehmkuhl in the Pacific, and knows that there is more that threatens the people of the Pacific than climate change and rising sea levels.
For thirty years France tested nuclear weapons on Mururoa and Fatafunga, two uninhabited Pacific atolls. A report from last year concludes that the radiation doses the inhabitants of French Polynesia was exposed to has been greatly underestimated.
Statsraad Lehmkuhl is well underway on the Pacific part of the One Ocean expedition, the 20 months long expedition to create attention and share knowledge about the crucial role of the ocean for a sustainable development in a global perspective.
As ship's doctor on one of the legs of the voyage, my task is to look after the health of crew and fellow sailors on board, as well to reflect on the various health, environmental and sustainability issues we meet on the trip.
In the Pacific there are several. One of them concerns nuclear weapons.
In the warm trade wind, we sail west from Chile towards Tahiti, just north of Mururoa and Fangataufa where France from 1966 to 1996 conducted nuclear test explosions. A total of 41 of these were carried out in the atmosphere, causing radioactive fallout over a number of the islands in the Pacific Ocean.
Until 1965 France tested their nuclear weapons in Algeria, but after the country's independence they had to look for another place to detonate their bombs. The choice fell on Mururoa and Fangataufa in the Pacific Ocean, two uninhabited atolls or coral islands, defined as overseas French territories.
The radiation doses and level of damage the test explosions had inflicted on the population was for several decades considered completely insignificant. The scientific articles concluded that maybe it was a little more thyroid cancer among the inhabitants of the islands, but that is was unlikely this was linked to the test explosions.
In 2021 journalists and researchers from Princeton University looked into previously classified military archives from France, and meterological data ("the Mururoa files"). Scientists simulated the nuclear mushrooms and scattering patterns, and found that the nuclear contamination in French Polynesia was gravely underestimated, beeing from 2 to 10 times higher than first thought.
The French state had miscalculated the spread caused by the explosions, withheld damage reports and downplayed the extent of the damages afterwards. The local population was not warned, and were not given the opportunity to protect themselves from the radiation.
French civil servants were to some extent protected. A French minister who visited the island of Gamier in 1966 was evacuated just before the nuclear fallout hit the island, and French officials monitoring the radiation was given bottled drinking water.
Many of the islanders on the other hand, had rainwater as their only source of drinking water, and were not given any warnings against drinking it or provided with alternative supplies of water.
The vegetables grown on the islands was also a source of radioactive radiation, but the French authorities did not take this into account in the calculation of the radiation doses. The same calculation models did not differ between how children and adults are affected by radioactive radiation, so the radiation doses to children ended up highly underrated.
The 2021 report estimated that approximately 110,000 people, as much as 90% of French Polynesia's population, were exposed to radiation above the recommended threshold (1 mSv/year) as a result of the test explosions.
The radiation increases the risk for thyroid cancer, but the risk of breast and
lung cancer also increase. It is estimated that yearly 350 new cases of cancer can be attributed to radioactive radiation in France Polynesia, and the total number of cancer cases occurring after the test blasts are calculated to be 10,000.
The story of the French nuclear tests in French Polynesia is important. It is thought provoking that one of Norway's allies in NATO has inflicted disease on the civilian population through the development of weapons we are also protected by.
Although nuclear weapons have only been used in war twice in history, and that 75 years ago, the development of these unused weapons has inflicted costs in form of human health problems due to radioactive emissions from the test detonations.
The Norwegian government has just cut their support to organizations working for nuclear disarmament, and that only a couple of months after
parents of children under the age of 16 was asked to consent to schools
and kindergartens handing out iodine tablets in the event of nuclear accidents.
Disarmament and de-escalation is still very important.
About the author: Marianne Aanerud is associate professor at UiB, senior consultant at the Lung Department, HelseBergen, and a member of Norwegian Physicians Against Nuclear Weapons. She was ship's doctor on board Statsraad Lehmkuhl from Puerto Montt to Tahiti.
Translated into English by Ronald Toppe