On July 2, 1966, in the greatest secrecy, France carried out its first nuclear test in the Polynesian sky. That day, at 5 h 34 in the morning, Aldebaran, the name given to the bomb, is fired from a barge installed on an azure blue lagoon, near the atoll of Mururoa. A few microseconds after the explosion, a fireball appears. This incandescent mass of several thousand degrees rises in the sky and forms, as it cools, an immense cloud of radioactive dust dispersed by the winds.
No less than 46 “atmospheric” tests like this one have been carried out in the space of eight years. Each time, the explosion generated fallout contaminating everything in their path. Starting with the inhabitants of the islands. In total, they were exposed 297 times to intense levels of radioactivity. The staff of the armies has always kept to the same line of defense. Atmospheric tests, presented as “Clean”, would not have had “Health consequences” Polynesians.
Radioactive fallout in French Polynesia. © Disclose
For years, associations defending the victims of the trials have been convinced to the contrary. As for the scientific community, it has tried several times to verify this position through in-depth analyzes of official data, without success. Latest illustrations of this failure: the study published by the National Institute for Health and Medical Research (Inserm) on February 18. At the end of this work commissioned by the Ministry of Defense eight years ago, Inserm estimated that the “Links between the fallout from atmospheric tests and the occurrence of radiation-induced pathologies” were difficult to establish due to a lack of reliable data on the contamination of the archipelagos.
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« Cluster de cancers »
However, a confidential report submitted to the Polynesian government a year earlier, in February 2020, argues the opposite. Disclose has obtained a copy of this never-before-released document. Soberly titled “Health consequences of French nuclear tests in the Pacific”, this eight-page report was written by a French military doctor at the request of the Monitoring Medical Center, an administration created in 2007 by the French and Polynesian governments and responsible for screening radiation-induced diseases. In other words, pathologies linked to repeated exposure to ionizing radiation.
According to the author, some 10 000 Polynesians, including 600 children under the age of 15 living in the Gambier Islands, Tureia or Tahiti would thus have received a dose of radioactivity of 5 millisieverts (mSv), i.e. five times more than the minimum threshold (1 mSv) from which the exposure is considered dangerous for human health.
But the most embarrassing information is on page 5 of the document. For the first time, an official report establishes a direct link between nuclear tests and the importance of the number of cancers in the population. “The presence of a ‘cluster’ of thyroid cancers focused on the islands subjected to fallout during aerial shots, and in particular in the Gambier Islands, leaves little doubt about the role of ionizing radiation, and in particular of thyroid exposure to radioactive iodine, in the occurrence of this excess of cancers ”, says the author.
The thyroid, an organ at the base of the neck, is particularly sensitive to ionizing radiation, especially during childhood, when the risk of developing thyroid cancer is greatest. The incidence of thyroid cancer and the link with the atmospheric gunfire campaign were precisely the subject of an Inserm analysis in 2010. According to this study, 153 thyroid cancers were diagnosed between 1985 and 1995 in the population born before 1976 and residing in French Polynesia. As a result, the number of people with thyroid cancer was two to three times higher than in New Zealand and Hawaii. Without being able to establish a direct link with nuclear tests, the panel of experts already deplored the lack of available data.
Based on data from the time, Disclose and Interprt, in partnership with the Science and Global Security program at Princeton University (United States), reassessed the doses of radioactivity received in the thyroid by the inhabitants of the Gambier, of Tureia and Tahiti during six of the most contaminating nuclear tests. Our estimates show that the doses received would be between two and ten times higher than the estimates established by the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in 2006.
How can we explain such a gap between our results and those of the CEA? The answer can be found in the details of the calculation options chosen by the scientists at the French Atomic Energy Commission. Take the example of Aldebaran, the first test in the open air. The CEA estimated that the population of the Gambier Islands, very exposed to toxic fallout, only drank water from rivers, but no rainwater, which is much more loaded with radioactive particles.
Many witnesses met in Polynesia question this assertion. This is the case of Julie Lequesme, 12 years old at the material time. “We only had that, rain water”, explains this resident of Taku, a village north-east of Mangareva, the main island of the Gambier archipelago. Same thing in Rikitea, the capital of the island, where “The running water network was not completed until the end of the 1970s”, specifies Jerry Gooding, the former president of association 193, the main organization supporting civilian victims of nuclear tests.
Rainwater consumption is also confirmed by at least four official documents that we have obtained. A study by the Office for Scientific and Technical Research Overseas (Orstom) published in August 1966, one month after the start of the tests, notes that part of the islanders only consumed rainwater, particularly in because of their isolation. Same conclusion in a report from the Joint Biological Control Service (SMCB), an army service, dated April 24, 1968. By reintegrating the consumption of rainwater after Aldebaran, our estimates for the exposure of a child aged 1 to 2 at the time are 2.5 times higher than official calculations.
Of the six tests that we have reconstructed, the consumption of rainwater is the main source of exposure to radioactivity for five of them. By choosing not to integrate this data or by minimizing its importance, the State has therefore knowingly underestimated the extent of the contamination.
In the Gambiers, the legacy of cancer
According to the Ministry of the Armed Forces, the Gambier Islands have been affected by atmospheric fallout 31 times. In fact, the archipelago was struck by all the tests carried out between 1966 and 1974. Since then, cancer has spread everywhere. From Rikitea to Taku, to the shore of Taravai, the inhabitants are convinced: this plague is directly linked to atomic experiments.
By investigating the field and meeting dozens of witnesses, Disclose was able to map the disease in Mangareva, the main island of the Gambiers. Although we have not been able to establish a direct link between the trials and the number of cancers on site, the result is edifying.
Yves Salmon developed carcinoma, a radiation-induced cancer of the blood, in 2010. His wife contracted breast cancer. She was recognized as a victim of French nuclear tests. The same goes for his sister.
Utinio, Yves Salmon’s neighbor, contracted thyroid cancer in 2001. The man, who still lives near the village of Taku, spent his childhood in the Gambiers. In 2010, the French state finally recognized him as a victim of nuclear tests.
Monique, 69, is Utinio’s cousin. She survived thyroid cancer after two years in hospital and was compensated by the state in August 2011. Monique has six children, four of whom have thyroid cancer. His two daughters have requested compensation from the Compensation Committee for Victims of Nuclear Tests (Civen) without having received any answers yet.
Sylvie (first name has been changed) and her older sister, born in 1972 and 1971, both suffered from breast cancer. “It was when our elders began to die that we really asked ourselves questions”, confides the eldest. Their mother died of the same disease in 2009. She was recognized as a victim of nuclear tests, just like Sylvie. This resident of Mangareva now fears for her daughter.
Julie Lequesme’s father, an elder from Taku village, died of throat cancer in 1981 after working in Mururoa. “The island doctor told me that, seeing my father’s radios, he was a heavy smoker, she testifies. However, my father never touched a cigarette. “ Her husband, a CEA alumnus, also died of cancer in 2010.
In the family of Catherine Serda, a former resident of the small village of Taku, eight people suffered from cancer between the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1990s. Their common point: they all lived in Mangareva at the time. tests.
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