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French Nuke Tests Were Harmful

Aerial file photo of a 1995 French nuclear test at Mururoa.
By Elizabeth Bryant
Paris (UPI) Jan 30, 2006
A report by French Polynesia's parliament asserts that nuclear tests that took place between 1966 and 1974 produced harmful radioactive fallout - contrary to arguments by authorities in Paris.

Scheduled for public release in early February, the report is the fruit of 10 months of investigation by a parliamentary commission in the Pacific islands. It is among several inquiries into whether inhabitants of the Pacific islands were exposed to abnormally high doses of radiation -- possibly causing thyroid cancer and other diseases. The French government has argued the tests were "clean."

While the findings have not shown "radiological anomalies that today threaten public health," the commission concluded in remarks extracted in French newspapers, "the results suggest that the atmospheric tests left traces or radioactive elements after the nuclear explosions."

France conducted 210 nuclear test explosions, mostly in Algeria and French Polynesia, from the 1960s to the 1990s. The 41 or so atmospheric tests conducted in Pacific atolls of Mururoa and Fangataufa have long been a source of friction between the French overseas territory and Paris.

In 1975, France switched to underground testing. The last explosion took place in January 1996.

A 1995 U.N. study commissioned by France found radiation levels from the Pacific tests posed no public threat. But a year later, the French government admitted fissures had been discovered on coral cones on the test sites.

By contrast, the Polynesian commission argues that a dozen of the atmospheric tests produced radio active fallout across almost all of the archipelago.

And the leader of the commission, Tea Hirshon, reportedly complained a variety of French agencies -- from the Health Ministry to the government weather service -- did not respond to demands for more information about the tests.

The French Defense Ministry -- cited by other ministries as the source for any official reaction -- has not commented to date on the Polynesian report, a ministry spokesman told United Press International Monday.

Hirshon's commission partly based its findings on French military reports of the time. Some of the reports found above-normal radiation levels in different sites in Polynesia following a test -- such as radiation traces found in Tahiti following a July, 1974 nuclear test.

Another report found that the radiation level in another region, Gambiers, was 1,000 times higher than that reported in metropolitan France following the passing of a cloud of radioactive dust, after the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, the commission found.

The commission also faulted meteorological services of the era for providing incomplete information prior to the nuclear tests. It said only precise information about the atmospheric conditions for high altitudes were provided -- and not for the conditions at lower altitudes.

The commission's report coincides with a separate study on the high rate of thyroid cancer in French Polynesia currently being conducted by the National Institute for Health and Medical Research, or INSERM. Researchers hope to find out whether the high rates can be linked to nuclear explosions on the atolls.

"There's a very high rate of thyroid cancer in Polynesia -- twice as high as in metropolitan France," said INSERM researcher Francoise Doyon, in a telephone interview. "It's the same in New Caledonia, and in volcanic islands in general."

But Doyon offered a guarded reaction to the Polynesian commission's findings on radiation levels. "The Polynesian Assembly didn't use a scientific method like we did," she said. Moreover, she noted lawmakers based part of their inquiry on Polynesians who volunteered to be interviewed, "and they tend to have more health problems than those who don't," she added.

While the nuclear explosions might be one explanation for the high cancer rates, Doyon said, there might be others -- including characteristically high obesity rates in French Polynesia, or other genetic factors. INSERM, which began its study in 2002, is expected to publish its findings in the first six months of this year, Doyon said.

Last year, an antinuclear publication, Damocles, reported that a 1966 test produced radioactive doses higher than the norm. But France's Defense Ministry has again argued the level did not produce adverse health effects.

France's nuclear tests are only one source of tension between Paris and French Polynesia. Independence movements have long flourished on the islands, which became overseas territories in 1946. Today, French Polynesia has representatives in the French and European parliaments, and earned "overseas country" status in 2004.

Last year, pro-independence leader Oscar Temaru was elected as president of the territory's assembly, replacing pro-France head Gaston Flosse. But Temaru says any possible secession from France in the future would only take place with clear public support.

Source: United Press International

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