Health fallout from nuclear tests


By Eva Cheng

In 1963, when the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain announced their plans to stop atmospheric nuclear tests, the French governor of Tahiti claimed, "Not a single particle of radioactive fallout [from France's pending atmospheric tests] will ever reach an inhabited island in the Pacific".

But shortly after France's first tests at Moruroa in 1966, radiation was detected as far away as Samoa, Fiji and New Zealand.

France proceeded with 44 more such tests in Moruroa, stopping only in 1974, after two years of sustained public pressure. The people of French Polynesia have paid the price. They have experienced higher cancer rates, birth abnormalities and other illnesses since the tests began, according to research conducted by Greenpeace.

The rationale for underground tests is that they confine the radiation from the explosion. This could prove disastrously mistaken in the case of fragile coral atolls such as Moruroa and the nearby Fangataufa, where France plans to conduct eight more nuclear tests in the nine months from September.

The US and Britain moved their nuclear testing ground from the Pacific to the Nevada desert because of fears that the atolls are too fragile for underground explosions. However, France carried on with its tests. More than 130 underground nuclear tests later, the atolls are riddled with holes, their structural soundness perhaps seriously undermined. The amount of radioactivity there is estimated by some scientists to be 100 times that released by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Can the radioactivity leak out? Not for thousands of years, according to the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), which oversees France's nuclear testing program. CEA says that by the time leakage does take place, most of the radionuclides will have decayed, so that only negligible amounts of radioactivity will reach the ocean.

CEA's claims have been vigorously disputed. Professors Manfred Hochstein and M. O'Sullivan, both experts in geothermal fluid mechanics at Auckland University, New Zealand, concluded in 1985 — based on computer modelling of French official data — that highly dangerous and long-lived radionuclides would be released into the ocean around Moruroa within 10 to 100 years.

The French authorities have not refuted these findings, but they have actively blocked comprehensive independent research. Despite that, the restricted researches conducted over the years have consistently cast doubts on the French authorities' claim that the tests are leakage free.

A most telling piece of evidence came from the technicians and engineers who conducted the tests in Moruroa. Worried about their own safety, they published a report in 1981 through their union, listing a series of accidents, spills and incidents of storm damage involving large-scale release of plutonium and radioactive waste material into the Pacific. Information in the report was later confirmed by France's then minister for defence, Charles Hernu.

Public health statistics on French Polynesia, previously freely available, ceased to appear after the construction of the Pacific Test Centre at Moruroa. The statistics were made available again in 1983, at the request of the World Health Organisation, but have become incomplete and inaccurate, according to health scientists. Statistics remain unavailable for the 20 years of atmospheric testing, or the first eight years of underground testing. This information blackout gives a measure of how much the French government has to hide.

Many studies have strongly linked thyroid cancer with radiation exposure. A 1991 study by Hancock, Cox and McDougall demonstrated that the incidence of thyroid cancer increased significantly among the population of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which was heavily exposed to ionising radiation as a result of the US explosion of atomic bombs on those cities in 1945.

Serious fallout in the Marshall Islands as a result of the US bomb testing in Bikini in March 1954 has been subject to intensive study. A significant jump in thyroid pathology among the Marshall Islanders was revealed, most comprehensively by Dobyns and Hyrmer in 1992, based on a study among 1250 Marshallese over 37 years.

1992 research following the April 1986 meltdown of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl revealed a leap in the incidence of thyroid cancer in children in nearby regions, with the nearest hit hardest. In the Gomel region, immediately north of Chernobyl, the reported cases of thyroid cancer in children under 15 jumped to 14 in 1990, 38 in 1991 and 13 in the first six months of 1992, compared with a rate of one or two in the four years to 1989.

A study of Hawaii covering the 25 years to 1984 also revealed an unusually high rate of thyroid cancer there. Researchers Goodman, Yoshizawa and Kolonel described the environmental factor as having "a major influence" on this trend.

A significant rise in cases of thyroid cancer was also recorded at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney over the 30 years to 1992, up steadily from two in 1963 to 60 in 1992. A creeping rise was also recorded for New South Wales in the 18 years to 1989. Researchers Fahey, Reeve and Delbridge believed many factors have contributed to the rise, but in the context of a suspected rise in "background radiation" over the last decade.

They said: "Testing nuclear weapons is associated with very significant increases in thyroid cancer in populations exposed to even low levels of irradiation".

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