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History of French Nuclear Tests in the Pacific
[Part I ] 1966-1974: Atmospheric tests
Ludwig De Braeckeleer (ludwig)     Print Article 
Published 2006-10-29 14:39 (KST)   
For the first time in almost half a century, French scientists are confronting their government with solid scientific evidence showing that the nuclear tests conducted in the Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls have caused an increase in thyroid cancers among the populations inhabiting the neighboring islands.

This four-part story retraces the history of the French nuclear testing program in the Pacific and summarizes the conclusions of several surveys regarding the radiological situation of these atolls as well as the potential health consequences on the local populations.



  <Editor's Note>

French scientists have played a major role in the early development of nuclear physics. Becquerel discovered the natural radioactivity of uranium salts in 1886. Two years later, Marie and Pierre Curie isolated a new element, the radium, and investigated its properties. The three French scientists shared the 1903 Noble Prize for Physics.

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In 1934, Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie, the daughter and son-in-law of Pierre and Marie Curie, produced the first artificial radioactive element. For this discovery, they won the 1935 Noble Prize of Chemistry.

In 1938, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered the process by which a neutron splits a heavy nucleus in two lighter ones. In January 1939, Lise Meitner explained this reaction and called it nuclear fission. In the spring of the same year, F. Joliot and his collaborators -- Lew Kowarski, Hans Halban and Francis Perrin -- demonstrated the possibility of a chain reaction.

From then on, nuclear reactions could be used to produce energy or to make powerful weapons. On May 1939, Joliot deposited three patents: the first two concerned the production of energy while the third one dealt with the military applications.

During the occupation of France by the Germans which began in June 1940, research in nuclear science no longer progressed. However in the U.S., American and British nuclear scientists were advancing rapidly with the Manhattan project.

As French nuclear scientists were well aware of the potential military application of nuclear energy, General de Gaulle had been well informed of the progress made in the U.S. toward the fabrication of the first nuclear weapons. On Oct. 18, 1945, de Gaulle created the Atomic Energy Commissariat (AEC). The Atomic Energy Authority is the first such Agency ever established worldwide. On the same day, he appointed Joliot as the High Commissioner and Dautry as the General Administrator.

In the years following the end of WWII, France was plagued by a weak political power and tremendous economical difficulties. As a result, French nuclear research made little progress and fell well behind that of the new superpowers. Reliance on U.S. economical help, through the Marshall plan, may equally have prevented France to consider the nuclear military option, as the U.S. government was eager to keep its nuclear monopole.

France merely attempted to keep alive a small-scale research program. On Dec. 15, 1948, France started its first nuclear reactor: ZOE. The following year, a plutonium research facility was set up at Le Bouchet by the AEC.

Another factor that held back the development of a French nuclear weapon was the strong influence of the French Communist Party. On March 19, 1950, F. Joliot, himself a communist, signed the "Stockholm Appeal." The Declaration called for an absolute ban on nuclear weapons. As the Government of Georges Bidault could not longer tolerate his opinions, Joliot was dismissed and replaced by F. Perrin in April 1950.

In 1952, Felix Gaillard, the Secretary of State for Atomic Energy in the Pinay Government (March 1952 to January 1953), drafted a modest five-year plan for the development of atomic energy. His plan concentrated on civilian applications of nuclear energy as a remedy for the country limited resource of fossil energy. In July 1952, the Communist Party drafted a project of law banning all research activities related to military applications of nuclear energy. The Bill was overwhelmingly defeated by the National Assembly (518 to 100).

While the vote merely left the door opened to the development of nuclear weapons, the re-armament of Germany convinced the French Military Authorities that France needed these weapons. And thus, on Dec. 26, 1954, Prime Minister Pierre Mendes gave the authorization for a nuclear weapon program. The Bureau of General Studies was immediately created to manage this program.

Meanwhile, the Fourth Republic was facing major troubles with its colonies. In 1954, Algerian nationalists began a war for independence. The next year, France had to abandon Indochina after a decade of fighting.

Yet, it is probably the 1956 Suez operation that best revealed to the French and British the new status of the world. Moscow threatened to launch missiles on London and Paris in response to their intervention while Washington showed no solidarity for their cause. The incident showed that a common vision of defense did not imply automatically a convergence of interests on matters of foreign policy.

In France, the feeling of dependence on Americans was no longer bearable. To put an end to this situation, the French Parliament affirmed the need to possess the nuclear bomb. Slowly, and with much hesitation, the French Nuclear Doctrine was taking shape.

On Oct. 5, 1956, a program concerning vehicles of delivery of nuclear weapons was established. On Nov. 30 the AEC and the Defense Minister signed a memorandum concerning the testing of nuclear weapons.

On Dec. 5 a Committee for the Military Applications of Atomic Energy was created. This committee provided for a secret co-operation between the Atomic Energy Commissariat and senior military officials. On Dec. 19 a strategic nuclear bomb program was outlined.

In May 1958, rebel army officers seized control of Algiers. In Paris, a coup seemed imminent. A weak and inexperienced government had lost control over all matters. In this critical situation, General de Gaulle made his come back on the political scene.

On May 31, 1958, de Gaulle became President of the Council of Ministers. In June, the National Assembly voted him full powers for a period of six months. Moreover, he was asked to draft the constitution of the Fifth Republic which he submitted in September to a popular referendum. The new Constitution was approved by a wide margin.

On Dec. 21, de Gaulle became President of France. In the autumn of 1958, Algeria was General de Gaulle's most urging problem. He quickly dismissed a military solution, foreseeing that the independence was unavoidable.

The return of General de Gaulle also marked the end of French hesitations concerning nuclear matters. De Gaulle intended to distance himself from Washington in order to raise France's international prestige and to restore its independence in Foreign Affairs. But in order to reduce the French dependence on the American nuclear umbrella, he felt the urgent need to develop a nuclear force. His view was widely shared by top French military officials.

"Western defense centered around the nuclear weapon is becoming wholly dependent on American wishes... The only possible correction is the formation by the European nations of a nuclear arsenal to allow them to intervene in the new warfare with their own means; it would give them the possibility of resuming a leading role in directing the coalition," wrote General Valluy, the French representative in the NATO Standing Group.

As "French defense must be French," the General created the "Strike Force", a nuclear force independent of NATO. He soon afterwards decided on the date of the first test which he would announce on June 17, 1958, during a meeting with his Defense Council.

In 1959 he ordered the closing of all U.S. Air Force bases in France. A point of no return had been reached. France would become a nuclear power. There is some irony in the undisputable fact that the French took their decision not so much out of fear of their enemies but because of a lack of confidence in their allies.

Becoming a nuclear power meant, among other things, that France needed a test site. On June 17, 1958, de Gaulle chose the Sahara for this purpose.

Despite the fact that the British, Soviet, and American had previously agreed -- in 1963 -- to ban testing in the atmosphere, under water, and in space, the French government decided to carry out atmospheric testing. This would eventually lead the Soviet Union to withdraw from the moratorium.

Seventeen tests were performed: four in the atmosphere (from Feb. 13, 1960, to April 25, 1961) and 13 underground from November 1961 to February 1966.

In 1960, de Gaulle opened peace negotiations with the Algerian rebels. These negotiations lead to an agreement granting independence to Algeria. As a result, the Sahara test sites -- Reganne and In Ecker -- had to be abandoned and new locations had to be found. And by then, the French Empire had dwindled to a few islands.

French Polynesia, a territory roughly the size of Europe, is made up of about hundred islands. These Islands, most of which are coral atolls, belong to five different groups: Marquises Islands, Austral Islands, Iles Gambier, Society Islands and Tuamotu Archipelago.

The Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls, located in the southeast corner of the Tuamotu Archipelago are located 20,000 km away from the metropolis. Nevertheless, they are part of France. These atolls were chosen for their "ideal location." They were uninhabited, easily accessible, and located far away from populated islands.

The closest inhabited atoll is Tureia (140 persons) at a distance of 120 km to the north. Only 5,000 persons lived within 1,000 km of the test site. A larger population (184,000 persons in 1974) is located 1,200 km to the northwest, at Tahiti.

Moreover, French technicians deemed the meteorological conditions perfectly suited to atmospheric nuclear tests. They also concluded that the basaltic nature of the underground was particularly well suited for underground testing.

The fringes of the atolls are at most a few hundred meters wide and enclose a lagoon. They rise just a few meters above sea level. Moruroa covers an area of 155 km square while Fangataufa, located 40 km south, covers an area of 45 km square.

On March 29, 1963, the legislation establishing the two atolls as test sites was signed. A few weeks later, French Troops and civilian workers arrived at once.

Immediately, the local parliament, known as the Territorial Assembly, objected the tests for environmental and radiological concerns. The French governor -- the so called high Commissioner -- simply reminded them of their colonial status. As such, all questions relating to defense matters were outside their competence.

French officials brushed aside all concerns about nuclear fallout by stating that the nukes would be exploded only when the wind was blowing in the south direction, where no other islands are located.

On July 2, 1966, the French tried out their new atomic test site at the Moruroa atoll. The first bomb, a plutonium fission device named Aldebaran, was placed on a barge floating over the lagoon and was detonated, at 5:34 local time.

Following the blast, unpredicted winds spread the radioactive fallout over the Gambiers Islands. As the radioactivity levels raised to 0.6 millisievert (The International System of Units for radiation dose and effective dose equivalent -- 1 millisievert = 100 millirem) per hour, no one notified the local populations. Levels of radioactivity in drinking water were 50 times above normal.

On July 19, 1966, the French dropped the next bomb from an airplane flying 15,000 meters above the empty ocean, 40 km south of the atoll.

After these two tests, radiation at five times the permitted annual dose was measured at the Gambier Islands. In Apia, Western Samoa, the concentration of fission products in rain water was 135,000 pico-curies per liter. For comparison, the maximum allowed amount of radioactivity contained in products imported in the European Union is about 10 times smaller than this value.
Part 2 of this series will be published later this week.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ludwig De Braeckeleer

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