Edited, with added highlights, from a ‘summary review’ published in Medicine, Conflict & Survival.
Bruno Barrillot, [Polynesia: Nuclear test series 1966 and 1967. Fallout on Mangareva]. Damocles La lettre (No. 112-114): 1-46. Paris, Centre de Documentation et de la Recherche sur la Paix et les Conflits, 2005.
In the spring of 2005 the French periodical Damocles published as a treble issue an extensive and thorough compilation with much well-informed comment, on the findings of the latest research into the effects of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons tests carried out by France among the Polynesian islands of the South Pacific over three decades.A substantial body of evidence was adduced to refute the claim made in an official statement as late as April 2005 that there was only a small chance of a discernible effect from radioactivity.
The focus is on island group The Gambiers, in the most remote part of French Polynesia, something over 1500 kilometres from Tahiti, the largest of these islands (population about 570 before the 1966 tests) being Mangareva, location of the archipelago's capital, Rikitea.
Views from 1966
In 1966 France resumed the atmospheric nuclear tests abandoned after the failed attempt of 25 April 1961 at Reggane in the Sahara, relocating the programme to the radically different environment of "French" Polynesia and looking at new detonation techniques. From the first there were "incidents" and unexpected effects such as unforeseen fallout. The reports suggest that those conducting the experiments exceeded the known risks, disregarding the protection of personnel and of the neighbouring populations, in order to pursue their test series according to the set schedule. Those in charge even excluded external witnesses who could have been inconvenient insofar as they would have alerted the Polynesian peoples, while agencies responsible for safety or radiological protection were often subordinated to the same imperative of the nuclear test programme.
Thus the Medical Service for Radiological Safety (SMSR) reports sometimes draw attention to the risks or problems of radiological protection, but none challenges the test programme on the grounds of the stated risks. Certain witness accounts from veterans assert that the real mission of the SMSR was not radiological protection but to observe the effects of irradiation or contamination upon personnel, and the envrionment. Barrillot comments that the role of the SMSR in the context of the Pacific Experimentation Centre (CEP) illustrates the lack of accountability so prevalent in institutions linked to the armed forces and the nuclear complex. The authorities, from Paris outwards, understandably wished to pay particular attention to the people of the Gambiers, lying in the path of the winds which were reckoned to drive the radioactive cloud. The experts' recommendations, however, were not followed by the experimenters; reasons adduced for by-passing them, even after signifcant fallout on the Gambiers was confirmed, mainly have to do with the priority being given to the test programme. Certain passages in the documents reveal contempt for people, especially the native population.
The documents produced by the various agencies are not all consistent with each other. The compilers are different and often refer to a highly specific phase (notably fallout on Mangareva after 2 July 1966); others make a synthesis to go to their superiors. Certain documents, apparently distributed to a very restricted number of recipients, are real alarm calls. Others minimise the effects of the tests, especially those destined for the annual report all nuclear powers have to provide to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR).
What about the People?
Several months before the tests began, a (secret) document studied the preventive measures to be taken for Mangareva. At a meeting in Paris on 13 January 1966 of the "Consultative Commission responsible for studying technical safety problems in relation to nuclear tests" it was stated that the population displayed characteristics implying a higher genetic risk than for a European population of similar size. There was a proposal to put the inhabitants into shelters if there was any fallout on the small archipelago, warning and assembling them at the time of the firing. Churches were to offer protection, enabling the inhabitants to avoid the most intense radiation of the first hours. If at the end of the fallout period the external risk exceeded expected limits, they would be put on board ships anchored in the harbour, for an interim period during which there would be continual measurements of ambient radioactivity. According to the results of these analyses, the authorities would then decide either to put them back on land if the radiological risk could be regarded as negligible at that point, or to evacuate them to Hoo in the opposite event. Maximum radiation levels were set for these alternatives.
The secret report SMSR 2720, also predating the first explosions, displays a change of policy with regard to prevention in Mangareva, stating as a basic principle that preventive evacuation of the Gambier population before an experimental explosion was ruled out, on political and psychological grounds. It did, however, indicate the possibility of evacuating the Mangareva population (570 inhabitants) in case of accident. "Accident" is clearly defined in a draft entitled "Special Instruction for Evacuation Operations" as including any fallout on an inhabited area, but the difficulties - need to find small navy vessels which could have access to the island's facilities, significant number of elderly people and children, need to find decontamination and lodging for for nearly 600 people with food and clothing - suggested that there would be no evacuation, even in that case. The SMSR report did not recommend a solution.
What was to happen on 2 July 1966 clearly showed that all the experts' recommendations on protection were not followed, not only by reason of the difficulties referred to, but because the local populations were considered as negligible quantities and their protection was secondary to the military objectives of the test series. It had been noted at a Paris meeting of 5 February 1966 that the prospect of a possible evacuation imposed the constraint of only firing when windspeeds were so low that sea conditions would allow it. Determination of the "accidental" dose that should trigger action derived from comparing risks and consequences - public health, social, economic, psychological and political - of the measures to be taken, and the actual risks resulting from a given radiation level.
The combined report (Defence, confidential) of the SMSR on the fallout from the 1966 series gives exact details of the different types of fallout linked to a nuclear test:: the immediate fallout, primary and secondary; and the deferred fallout. A table indicates the fallout on Polyneisa and especially on Mangareva (pp.17,18). Barrillot notes that although this report gives no information on the "primary fallout" - the most significant - of each of the five 1966 explosions, the data from the first nuclear test on 2 July 1966 on Mangareva were well known, and indicate that what happened may be termed an actual "radiological accident" in accordance with the official criteria.
Two "restricted circulation" telexes of 2 July mention doses received on Mangareva which triggered an alert: the.Minister had been informed of significant radioactivity, slow to diminish; the soil was contaminated, and instructions for decontamination and holding food and fish were requested. They do not state how long the fallout stayed at this level, but may be taken to imply that in a few hours the inhabitants of Mangareva received an average dose above the maximum annual level permitted for the population in 1966. A handwritten note in capitals orders that La Coquille, a vessel of the Joint Biological Control Service (SMCB), was to be sent a.s.a.p. to study the situation on the ground. The resulting mission is dated 2-8 July 1966, its secret report 10 July 1966. La Coquille reached Gambiers waters on 5 July and berthed at Rikitea on the morning of the 6th. Even though the results were alarming, with many times the normal radioactiivity measured by the SMCB technicians with the facilities on board in washed and unwashed salad, six times the natural radioactiivity in drinking water, no ban on consumption was envisaged. Meanwhile the sailors went about their normal work with no visible dosimeters [gadgets worn to measure individual absorption of radiation].
Dr Million, who signed the report, tried to analyse the situation of the island's inhabitants and the organisation of (military) control on the island after the radioactivity readings, revealing the fear that people might suspect a problem had occurred in the wake of the first nuclear test. Reassured that the Tahitian population remained completely unaware, unconcerned, and incurious, he then examines the case of various categories of Europeans present on the island: the missionary, the policeman, the 'popaas' (ex-patriate settlers), the soldiers and Geophysics Laboratory personnel. Only the civilian LDG staff had shown anxiety, and everything was done to reassure them. The soldiers were in the know but for the most part obviously unaware of the figures..They maintained discretion and behaved as if nothing was the matter.
The SMSR captain, best informed about the radiological situation since his service took the readings and had given the alert, reacted ‘perfectly’, while deploring the lack of openness vis-a-vis the population and feeling worried for the village children walking barefoot and playing on the ground. Overall, he concluded that the psycho-political situation in the Gambiers does not seem to pose a problem in the short-term, but made some suggestions for the "second half-series". His first point, concerning the data on radioactivity absorbed by the inhabitants of Mangareva after 2 July, confirmed the scant regard paid to the population, urging that the account of the total dose taken up by them should be conveyed solely to the GOEN commandant, and warning it might be necessary to play down the real numbers in order not to lose the trust of the population, towards whom he recommends a clearer policy. There must be no discrimination if it should become necessary to wear protective clothing, something that he thought could probably be done with no effect on the inhabitants' state of mind since the disguises would no doubt amuse the Mangarevans.
Another document,distributed in 50 copies, produced on board the De Grosse, the flagship of the Alfa Force, and dated 8 August 1966, presents an account of the first half-series (three explosions) to the appropriate authorities along with the results obtained from: readings taken in the cloud, functioning of transmissions, surveillance operations, measurements and extent of the fallout. Naturally secret, it is a military document which, without giving exact figures, mentions fallout on the Gambiers but "spins" the data by comparison with the preceding reports on the situation created after 2 July. The head of the Nuclear Experiments Operational Group (GOEN), on the De Grosse, had access to the two telexes and the report from La Coquille at the time of issuing this. The report distributed more widely to political and military authorities constitutes a lying "interpretation" of the radioactivity readings taken by the competent services: the SMSR, publisher of the telexes, and the SMCB for Dr Million's report.
Without referring to the alarming reports which would have provoked negative reactions among the political or military recipients of his account, the head of GOEN sums up by stating that the influence of winds was greater than foreseen, and a low-altitude north-westerly wind that arose after the explosion had pushed the fallout to the south when the wind changed, so that for five hours there was a slight increase in radioactivity on the Gambiers, but withiin such limiits that it was not judged useful to warn the people, who would have panicked unnecessarily. The figures supplied for radioactivity on Mangareva do not enable the reader to understand what really happened on 2 July and the days following or to calculate the dose received by the Gambiers inhabitants.
Fallout on the Gambiers according to the IAEA report of 1996
Moving on, Barrillot recalls that at the time of the 1996 French nuclear test series, President Chirac sponsored a study on the radiological situation on the Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which mentions the measurements of doses absorbed by the Gambiers inhabitants on 2 July 1966, as 5.5 mSv, i.e. five and a half times the recommended maximum annual population dose in one day. The report nevertheless states that these local doses would have had no effect on the health of the individuals exposed. Nor do the figures presented in the IAEA report come from independent sources. This constitutes further proof of manipulation of the data on fallout rates for 1966. Inconsistencies appear, showing that the IAEA was not provided with complete data, rather with figures that would enable them to calculate approximately an absorbed dose equal to, or slightly above, the maximum annual permitted dose at that time.
Observations and Recommendations 2005
The Centre for Documentation and Research on Peace and Conflicts (p.35) hammered home the criticism of the authorities and their collaborators with seven points:
1. The fallout from the 1966 nuclear tests, measured on the island of Mangareva, should have required the immediate evacuation of the population... According to the IAEA report of 1998 which played down the duration of fallout on Mangareva, contamination of soil on 2-7-66 was measured at 142 times that in the banned zone at Chernobyl.
2. The 'rediscovered' documents quoted in this special file enable us to get a clearer picture... It is clear that other documents on this period exist, since some are quoted as references in the 'rediscovered' documents...
3. The 'rediscovered' documents can nevertheless stand as sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the services involved in the nuclear tests manipulated the data to minimise their impact on the environment, individuals and populations.
4. Opening the archives on the nuclear tests for the whole period of atmospheric testing (1966-74) would allow a more precise overview of the impact of the nuclear tests on the whole of French Polynesia.
5. The studies of the consequences of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the outcome of the demands of populations and veterans who were victims of the American nuclear tests clearly show that the effects of radiation resulting from the nuclear tests can emerge up to 40 years later... [health-checks for islanders and descendants].
6. Similar studies should be undertaken for several atolls frequently referred to in the 'rediscovered' documents, notably Tureia and Reao...
7. On the basis of similar studies, the affected populations and their representatives would be able to embark on legal action with a view to obtaining compensation.
The last ten pages, ending with a bibliography, contain nine Annexes presenting extended background on several key topics, including a table detailing all the tests, accounts of research papers on massive contamination of fish (epidemic ciguatera poisoning), and a copy of current US legislation on compensation for test veterans, by way of contrast with the denial of islanders' rights to compensation. The validity of their claims is underlined by moving eye-witness testimony, from the time of the tests and their aftermath.