The French government's big secret


Moruroa — The Big Secret
The Cutting Edge
SBS, Wednesday, July 5, 8.30pm (8 Adelaide)
Reviewed by Jennifer Thompson

This documentary, made in 1993 by a group of French, Tahitian and Australian film makers, on the shelf until now, has been liberated by the opposition to French nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific. It is a timeless indictment of the Pacific testing program, lifting the lid on the results of the tests in defiance of the ongoing suppression of this information by the French military.

The military maintain a heavy control of the hospitals and statistics on cancers and birth deformities for "French" Polynesia, so the evidence presented by the film makers comes from a powerful set of interviews with Tahitians, many of whom worked at Moruroa, brave enough to speak up. When the documentary was shown on French television, it was described in parliament by Francois Leotard, then defence minister, as a "hostile action against France".

At the outset, the film states that since July 16, 1945, when the United States tested the first atomic bomb there have been approximately 2000 nuclear tests worldwide, estimated to have spread enough radiation to cause between 300,000 and 3 million terminal cancer cases. "The British and American governments have admitted that their atmospheric tests have contaminated the populations of the Pacific Islands, Nevada and Australia. These populations suffer particularly from cancer and their children from congenital malformation." This candidness hasn't prevented the US from planning a new testing program.

The French government has made no such admission, and the film documents its negligence toward the Polynesian population, who were exposed to radioactive fallout after several tests. One case mentioned was the occasion of the fourth test, in 1967, attended by General de Gaulle, who after delivering a patronising speech to Tahitians, was infuriated when weather conditions prevented the test going ahead as scheduled. The test went ahead the following day in an aura of secrecy about the weather report; as a result the New Zealand Radiation Laboratory documented serious radioactive fallout from rains on the Cook Islands, Samoa and Fiji.

Another atmospheric test in 1971, the Encelade test, also went ahead in dubious weather conditions, resulting in large amounts of radioactive fallout on the island of Tureia, only 70 km from Moruroa. The population of this island had on a previous occasion been evacuated to Tahiti, but for that test they remained on Tureia.

The Moruroa workers interviewed worked for the French military both before and after the end of atmospheric testing, which stopped in 1974, to be replaced by underground testing. They describe the effects on their own health and the deformities and illnesses afflicting their children. A midwife interviewed describes the rise in horrifying congenital deformities after 1968.

Two of those interviewed have particularly shocking stories. The first describes his posting to Moruroa in 1980 as part of his "military service" for France. While surfing, he cut his foot on coral, resulting in a terrible case of radiation illness, for which the military installed him in a military hospital for the months it took him to recover. He cannot remember anything during his illness, and he describes the fears he and his wife share for their soon-to-be-born child.

The second describes his job on Moruroa as a garbage collector beginning in 1976,. He says that he collected not only regular garbage, but also the contaminated debris that would wash up after each test. He and another Tahitian were required to collect all of the radioactive fish carcasses washed up, without the benefit of any protective equipment, not even gloves.

His statement at the end of the documentary is the most powerful. Speaking despite the likelihood of sacking from his job with the army, he calls on the French government to leave Tahiti and the Pacific, and to end nuclear testing. The documentary altogether presents a powerful argument for just that, and the only shame is that we haven't seen it before now.