Poisoned Reign. French Nuclear Colonialism in the Pacific by Bengt Danielsson and Marie-Therese Danielsson (Penguin Books 1986)
On 10 July 1985 the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was blown up in Auckland harbour by two French agents. This act might appear to be surprising, considering the fact that both France and New Zealand are members of the "free world". This book tells the story of how successive French governments, including the "socialists" who changed from opposition to support, have been determined to use French Polynesia for nuclear weapons testing and not let any opposition get in the way.
The post-war years saw the great European empires in decline. When the French were being kicked out of Algeria, they were on the lookout for an alternative nuclear testing site to the Sahara. French Polynesia seemed the best bet — its islands are spread over an area the size of Europe and the 120,000 inhabitants were easy-going and the French had been manipulating them for years. The fact that the South Pacific is rich in food, metals and oil was another reason to maintain French dominance.
Other countries at this time were also testing nuclear weapons — the British at Christmas Island, the Americans in the Marshall Islands, the Russians in Siberia, and the Chinese in parts of Mongolia and Tibet. None of them showed much concern for the effects this would have on the local population.
When the French nuclear testing programme was announced in the early sixties the local people were mostly opposed to it. But this opposition was ineffective — the islands were run from France and the various institutions available to the islanders, to have a say in their affairs, were powerless. The authorities used various methods, devious and oppressive, to neutralise this opposition.
On 2 July 1966 the first French nuclear bomb was exploded above Moruroa Atoll. The French President, de Gaulle, was there to observe. He had made many flowery speeches claiming a great regard for. and affinity with, the Polynesian people, who were the first overseas territory to recognise the Free French during the war and who had sent a battalion to two world wars.
The French nuclear authorities, when dismissing the dangers of the tests, had said that the bombs would only be exploded when the wind was blowing east, away from the inhabited areas. This was despite the fact that winds in the South Pacific can blow in many different directions during the same day. However, when de Gaulle was there the wind kept blowing straight towards inhabited areas. Rather than keep the General waiting, the bomb was exploded anyway. The fall-out reached as far west as Fiji and Samoa. Islanders in the vicinity of Moruroa were given advice on how to protect themselves They were told not to drink rain water or eat fish for a while. This advice was not particularly helpful as this is precisely what the islanders exist on.
The nuclear programme had other effects on the islanders. Many of them were needed to work on the project. They were enticed to Tahiti by high wages only to end up in slums around Papeete, the largest town. They had to endure filthy conditions and crime, prostitution and drunkenness all increased sharply. As most of the work was needed at the start of the programme, when this finished they found themselves unemployed and unable to get back to their islands, as they had been promised.
By 1974, 42 French nuclear bombs had been exploded in the Pacific skies. Due to pressure from other Pacific countries and environmentalists the French government decided to continue its testing underground. They still used Moruroa. despite the fact that a Pacific atoll is one of the worst possible sites. The rock is thin and brittle and the many tests carried out almost certainly caused radioactive leakage and contamination of fish, plankton, shells, dams and squid regularly eaten by the local population.
The extent of the pollution caused by these tests and their resulting effect on the population can only be guessed at, as the authorities engage in the usual practice of secrecy and cover up. No reliable health figures are published and safety standards certainly appear lax. Much of the nuclear waste was dumped on the north of the atoll and washed away by several cyclones and tidal floods which have become more common in recent years. Some of these tidal waves will have been caused by explosions blowing out the side of the atoll, spilling out its radioactive muck. The fact that by 1985, 115 French nuclear devices had been detonated in the Pacific along with 106 American and 21 British, does not bode well for the future health of the islanders.
The authors tell the story of the French nuclear programme well, but their analysis of why it took place, with stories of politicians' duplicity and pride is weak. They clearly disapprove of French attempts to keep up with the superpowers and be independent and are sad that French public opinion doesn't seem to care. Unfortunately, the fact that any capitalist government exists to defend its national interest, and will develop whatever weapons it can to do this, with scant regard for the effects on people, escapes them.
There was a statement recently from a French government spokesman that they might stop nuclear testing at Moruroa as even they think that the atoll cannot take any more blasts. The underground rock is apparently in a very fragile, unstable condition. This will come as a relief to the people in the Pacific, although others had better watch out — the spokesman said they were searching the North Atlantic for an alternative.