Moruroa: the cover-up begins


By Pip Hinman
Despite well-documented and widespread evidence linking nuclear explosions to health and environmental problems, there is a growing campaign to play down the impact of the underground tests at Moruroa atoll. A series of reports from science professionals which echo the French government's line are aimed at convincing us that the nuclear explosions at Moruroa will have a "minimal" or "negligible" effect on human health and the environment.
Two weeks ago, a team of Australian scientists presented a report to the Australian government which argued this position. A similar view was put in the ABC's Quantum report on August 23, for which, the publicity blurb wryly noted, presenter Megan James could well expect a case of champagne courtesy of French President Jacques Chirac. And an article in the August 19 edition of the right-wing Economist magazine, titled "Burying the facts", struck the same chord.
The argument, in a nutshell, goes as follows: the French government can be criticised for undermining progress towards a nuclear test ban treaty. However, it does not deserve to be vilified on environmental grounds, because none of the available evidence conclusively links increases in cancer rates and birth defects to radiation poisoning. Environmentalists — Greenpeace has been singled out as the main culprit — who say otherwise are scare-mongering.


But environmentalists are not the only ones to dispute the claim that the tests at Moruroa do not pose a considerable threat. Many scientists have warned about the consequences of the atoll breaking up, and criticised the French government for either not conducting and/or not releasing the health and environmental statistics collected from Moruroa to the international scientific community.
Most recently, a report in the British Medical Journal accused the Chirac government of serious omissions in medical records, environmental surveillance and follow-up of workers from the test site. Professor Peter Davies of Sydney University's Department of Geology and Geophysics, at a public lecture on August 23, said the detonation of another underground nuclear bomb at Moruroa could, in a worst case scenario, result in radioactive leakage from the atoll within 10 years. He also criticised the French government for not releasing data on the tests which, he said, was extensive and of high quality.
A unanimous declaration from the 14 members of the South Pacific Forum on August 17 also demanded that the French government cancel its nuclear tests, close its military facilities at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls and make available all scientific data and studies for an independent assessment of the health and environmental impacts of the tests.
Unfortunately, the South Pacific declaration was given little publicity. Instead, the establishment media focused on the French government's delight with a report which stated that there would be no health impacts from the French tests. (They chose not to disclose that is was presented by the head of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation at Lucas Heights.)
The pacifying tune of some scientists is being accompanied by silence, on the one hand, from New Scientist which one could have expected to have something to say about the French tests, and, on the other, active attempts by others to deactivate the anti-nuclear movement.
"Anti-nuke campaign doomed", a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald declared on August 30. Why? Because the French government refuses to act in accordance with majority opinion and, in the opinion of Gordon Bilney, the minister for Pacific Island cooperation, who wants the French government to maintain its colonial presence in the Pacific, all protests have been exhausted "short of going to war".
Bilney's shrugging of his shoulders indicates something of the real attitude of the Australian government — as did Gareth Evans' careless comment, "it's only eight tests", when Chirac's decision was first announced. While the French tests may be a bad public relations exercise, the Australian government recognises nuclear weapons as a necessary part of maintaining the global status quo.
This acceptance of nuclear weapons by Australian and other governments provides the setting in which the French government, with the help of some scientists and media outlets, has launched a softening up campaign, casting doubt on hitherto well-accepted facts. The lack of scientific data available for international scrutiny has strengthened the hand of those with an interest in playing down the dangers.
The cover-up is designed to play down one important and obvious point: that testing makes sense only if the intention is to use the technology. And this is precisely what, despite their willingness to sign another test ban treaty, the French and US governments have said that they will do if their "supreme national security" is threatened.


One of the main messages pushed by Quantum was that radiation from the tests at Moruroa would be negligible. Background radiation in Sydney's Pitt Street Mall is greater than the radiation released from the underground tests, it reassured viewers.
However, Greenpeace anti-nuclear campaigner Jean McSorley and president of Scientists for Global Responsibility Dr Cathy Foley dispute this implication that the tests are safe. They say that most scientists now agree that there is no safe dose of radiation. "The Quantum explanation of radiation was naive and reflected a poor understanding of what they were talking about", Foley told Green Left Weekly. "It's now clear that zero radiation would be ideal, although that's clearly not possible."
In his 1990 book How Safe is Safe?, Dr Barry Lambert said, "... at any level of exposure [to radiation] some damage will occur in the body tissues". It is the quantification of this damage that forms the basis of many current controversies.
McSorley admits that quantifying the impact of the radiation exposure is difficult, given the French authorities' secretive approach. Medicins sans Frontieres (MSF), after a recent visit to Moruroa, reported that a cancer registry had existed only since 1985. Yet, the French started atmospheric tests in 1965 and underground tests in 1975.
Today, only 60% of all cancers are notified. This incomplete record, and the fact that the French authorities do not have any statistics on congenital abnormalities, make it clear that there is no sound basis on which to claim, as Quantum did, there would be no adverse health effects from the tests.
There are four main effects of radiation exposure: fatal cancer, non-fatal cancer, genetic (non-hereditary) and genetic (hereditary) damage. According to Greenpeace, most of the radiation studies conducted by the French have focused on fatal cancers — especially those that have occurred at an earlier than expected age — and "non-fatal" cancers such as cancer of the thyroid. Most studies have only considered a relatively narrow band of illnesses, many of which took years for the medical community to recognise and accept as being "radiation related".
There has been little attempt to assess what may yet prove to be the biggest impact of radiation exposure — damage to or suppression of immune systems, which may not be particularly manifest or detectable using ordinary methods of medical examination. Damage to the gene pool may take many years to manifest itself in a way that can be recognised and assessed.

'Neutral' science?

Quantum did not interview MSF. However, it devoted considerable time to publicising the research of so-called independent scientists at the New Zealand National Radiation Laboratory, the same laboratory which has carried out work for the French military — a fact the program omitted. It tried to make out that these scientists were somehow "neutral" and that science can be conducted in a "neutral" political environment. The truth is otherwise.
In the late 1980s, the Pacific News Bulletin reported that the NZNRL produced a sanitised version of an investigation by French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau which showed evidence that radioisotopes were present in the Moruroa lagoon, and that parts of the atoll were cracking and sinking.
The Cousteau report concluded that Moruroa was a poor site for storing nuclear waste, and that as the volcanic stratum of the atoll was totally saturated, it was the worst choice for a nuclear testing site. The NZNRL director accepted that both venting and leakage of radio isotopes were happening at Moruroa, but suggested that the "solution" would be its dilution: he said "there will be enough water to reduce the strength/damage of radioactive particles".
This was repeated by NZNRL scientists in Quantum, despite the fact that dilution as a means of disposing of radioactive materials has long been rejected by health physicists as irresponsible.
Quantum implied that the radiation from underground testing is acceptable because it would be less than the amount from naturally occurring sources. But as McSorley pointed out, "The doses from atmospheric testing are in addition to exposure from naturally occurring sources". She also cited the UK National Radiological Protection Board, which said that exposure from natural sources of radioactivity should not be used as a justification for additional doses from human activities.
The principle that there is no "safe dose" of radiation has been agreed by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), which recommends "acceptable" levels for medical, industrial and military activities. Because there is no safe dose, it established criteria to "justify" certain practices which would involve exposure to radiation.
According to Greenpeace, the French government has not only actively blocked attempts by the European Union to implement ICRP standards recommended five years ago, but has also lobbied the ICRP against reducing the permitted radiation doses to underground uranium miners on the basis that its national security "benefits" from nuclear tests.
As for the Polynesians, it is hard to discern what the "benefits" are from having their land forcibly turned into a military base and contaminated with radionuclides such as caesium-137 and -134, strontium-90 and plutonium, some of the most toxic substances known.

Atoll cracking

While the French government continues to argue that the atoll is not in danger of releasing radiation, many studies have concluded differently.
While the bomb shafts on Moruroa are now drilled between 800 and 1200 metres into the atoll's basalt base, a significant amount of radioactive contamination is contained within the shaft. Since 1975, more than 130 nuclear weapons have been exploded in the shafts — including one which got stuck just 400 metres from the surface but was exploded anyway. Since the early 1980s, considerable evidence has collected that cracking and fissuring of the shafts — which leads to contamination of the surrounding sea — is occurring.
In 1981, a mission led by French geologist Haroun Tazieff warned about the geological stability of the atoll in the long term if nuclear weapons testing continued. In 1983 a NZ-Australia-PNG mission found elevated levels of tritium, an isotope with a half-life of 12 years which is water soluble, near the Moruroa lagoon as well as severe fissuring and subsidence of more than one metre in parts of the atoll.
In 1987, Jacques Cousteau found short-lived radionuclides such as caesium-134 and iodine-131 in the Moruroa lagoon, indicating leakage from test explosions. It was only after he had shown spectacular cracks and fissures in the atoll that the tests were moved to Fangataufa atoll.
In 1990 a Greenpeace team, which was denied access to the test site, found artificial radioactivity in plankton. In 1991 an International Atomic Energy Agency mission, invited by the French military to counter Greenpeace's findings, found elevated levels of plutonium in samples taken nearly 20 kilometres from the atoll.
Even those scientists who play down the dangers of the tests do not deny that cracking and fissuring is taking place. Yet the French Atomic Energy Commission, which overseas the nuclear test program, has consistently maintained that radioactive leakage will happen only after thousands of years.
Its model (the same as Quantum presented) is based on very slow diffusions, with no mass flow of radioactive isotopes through the cavities. This is despite the fact that caesium-134, an isotope with a half-life of two years, has been found in and around the Moruroa lagoon. John Hallam from Friends of the Earth told Green Left Weekly that evidence of this isotope near the lagoon is indicative of recent fissuring given that its short half-life precludes atmospheric testing as the source.
Foley told Green Left that Quantum had played down the toxicity of plutonium-239. "It made out that plutonium was just a heavy metal which just sinks to the ocean floor. That's rubbish!" Why does the world have such a problem with disposing of nuclear waste if plutonium, with a half-life of 24,000 years, it is as harmless as that, she asked?
She also wondered why Quantum didn't follow up the concerns expressed by Greenpeace activist Peter Wills, who suggested that France may well try to carry out more than eights tests by exploding two to three bombs at a time. This is a way of camouflaging the exact number of tests, as geological equipment would be able to record activity only from one.
"If three tests are let off at once, eight times, shock waves will be sent off in different directions. This could be a disaster for the atoll and the region. This may be the straw that breaks the camel's back."