French accused of Pacific nuclear cover-up
High cancer rates in Polynesian islands are blamed on 30 years of test explosions at Mururoa

(Gold9472: Do you guys remember when we were being told to "Boycott The French" by Fox News, etc... because they didn't support the war in Iraq? This made me think of that.)

Lindsay Vincent Papeete
Sunday January 1, 2006

French politicians ate the fish and declared they were good. Now, 10 years after the televised, stage-managed exit from atomic sites on the atoll of Mururoa, France is facing possible payback for its notorious South Pacific nuclear testing programme.

This month an all-party French Polynesia Assembly committee will publish findings into claims that atomic explosions, conducted over 30 years, caused fatalities and severe long-term health problems. The tests, the last of which was in 1996, numbered almost 200.

Local opponents of France have consistently blamed nuclear tests for the region's chronic levels of leukaemia and other cancers. They believe they will be vindicated by the forthcoming report and establish that France, for years, has engaged in an elaborate cover-up. They also claim Paris was aware of the health risks when testing began in 1966.

Strong evidence has emerged to support this assertion. But France, which teamed up last summer with Assembly supporters in an abortive challenge to the legality of the all-party inquiry, continues to deny it is culpable.

'We are now getting more than 600 cases of cancer a year and more than 250 deaths because of these tests,' says Roland Oldham, president of Mururoa e Tatou, the association of former Mururoa workers. He told The Observer that, historically, accurate data has been hard to come by. 'There are 31 possible cancers linked with nuclear matter and some can take 20 to 30 years to develop. This is why they are showing up now. Research in Japan even suggests that some cancers can be transmitted genetically,' he says.

Oldham's group is working in league with Aven, a Paris organisation for French nationals, both military and civilian, who also worked on nuclear sites in the region. 'Four of their veterans have won court cases for cancer compensation and two more are facing appeal. It is hard for us Polynesians to take our case to a French court because we don't have access to the right papers. Polynesians didn't keep papers.'

But the French military did. In 1998, in circumstances that turned farcical, a Paris journalist was given authorised access to military archives. 'He photocopied documents before it became known he was doing research in classified sections. Panic set in and he was kicked out.' A subsequent TV programme revealed, among many other things, that the military urged evacuation from Mangareva, 300 kilometres (186 miles) from the above-ground test on Mururoa in 1966, when strong winds blew the nuclear cloud eastwards, instead of westwards as had been expected. 'The [government] reply was: "No evacuation for political and psychological reasons." Ten days later the army went to measure radiation levels and they were so high that people were poisoned by vegetables and fish. They were evacuated to hospitals in New Zealand.'

Hospitals in Auckland were for years the preferred place to treat French Polynesian cancer sufferers. However, adverse local publicity - particularly after French agents sank the Greenpeace protest vessel Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour in 1985 - brought a change in policy. They are now treated in France.

Oldham says: 'Because of the nuclear problem, there is a lot of suspicion here of doctors and they are not trusted. Three years ago a former Mururoa worker was told he had diabetes and his toe was amputated. Two months later, his testicles started to swell and he was told he would have to be operated on in France, where he also underwent therapy. There, he was told he had cancer related to radiation.'

For the electorate, the all-party report will prove an important test for the credibility of Oscar Temaru, president of the pro-independence Tavini Huiraatira party. Temaru heads a coalition that, in 2004, ended the long-standing dominance of the Tahoera'a Huiraatira party, led by Gaston Flosse. Flosse, a lifelong supporter of French patronage, and all things Gallic, has strong support in three of the five archipelagos of French Polynesia, especially in the remote northern Marquesas group, where the population of around 10,000 receives generous French aid, indirectly funded by Brussels.

In the main group, the Society Islands, independence flags may be commonplace, particularly in Tahiti and its capital, Papeete, but there is growing suspicion that Temaru is becoming susceptible to French persuasion. Since being elected, Temaru has disappointed supporters by saying independence could yet be 20 years away. Moreover, he now plans to replace the Pacific franc with the euro.

France provides an economic lifeline for the region and its 200,000 inhabitants. Last year aid levels amounted to upwards of $180 million.