The campaign against the military use of nuclear technology never lets up, even for a single day. The opponents of those deadly warheads have made a lot of progress: bans have been put in place against tests in the atmosphere, underwater, and in space. In general, the number of nuclear detonations has dropped significantly since the era of the Cold War.
Unlike any other known weapon, nuclear attacks are different in that, one — the victims are chosen indiscriminately, and two — such bombs continue to wreak destruction for years and even decades after the initial explosions. Every person on this planet still absorbs approximately 5–10 microsieverts of radiation every year, mainly through our food, just from the aftereffects of nuclear tests. No one’s health is at any risk whatsoever from such a level of exposure, but what matters is the dose any one particular individual receives — not some meaningless “statistical average.” For someone who finds himself in the immediate vicinity of a blast zone, and thus on the far and deadly extreme of that scale, there can be no comfort in such an irrelevant number.
Strange as it may seem, the most passionate advocates of dangerous nuclear tests turned out not to be the Americans, but the French: they conducted them until the late 1990s, although Moscow and Washington had both begun to grasp the implications of their own actions almost a decade earlier.
It should be noted that the countries of the West, unlike the USSR and China, staged their nuclear tests in their colonies — far from their own populations and the media spotlight — and this indifference to the environment and to the health of those indigenous peoples was clearly acceptable to them.
Those tests were conducted in the strictest secrecy. The white-skinned population was evacuated in advance. The locals were viewed as disposable, and no one was particularly concerned about them. Of course, back then no accurate information was available about the effects of radiation on the human body. It took decades for the horrifying results of the nuclear tests in Australia, Polynesia, and Africa to become apparent to the public.
The legacy left behind by France, the US, and the UK at their overseas nuclear test sites includes cancerous illnesses, leukemia, cardiovascular diseases, and birth defects in newborns. Today, hundreds of thousands of people around the world are trying to win compensation from the nuclear powers. Australian aborigines living in the Maralinga region —the “Australian Hiroshima” — have been fighting for justice for more than half a century. When the British military began to conduct nuclear tests there in 1956, they evacuated the locals and made sure that the epicenter of the blasts was at least 300 kilometers from inhabited areas.
Some of the Australian aborigines who lived on those reservations where they planned to build the test sites were removed. However, more than a thousand of them stayed behind, continuing to live in their native forests and were thus exposed to a huge dose of radiation. The British military did not look after their safety and did not even try to order them out of the test site. According to the Royal Commission, which studied the British nuclear tests in Australia in 1985, the military believed that “a dying race [the aborigines] couldn’t influence the defence of Western civilisation.”
Sixty years later, Ceduna, the town where the descendants of the aborigines from Maralinga live, is now the “cancer capital” of Australia. The local residents are dying from cancer and lung diseases, trying in vain to get compensation from the UK for their suffering.
Back in the 1940s, scientists around the world warned the military about the dangers of radiation. But they didn’t listen. Prior to the first tests at Bikini Atoll, a consensus developed among the US military and politicians that the atmospheric detonations of nuclear bombs posed no danger, since after the blasts a type of “self-cleansing” of the air would occur. This was the official narrative on the tests, despite the fact that over the course of conducting them, the atoll’s unique ecological niche was almost completely destroyed and 840 inhabitants of Bikini and nearby islands died of cancer. Another 7,000 demanded acknowledgement from the US government that their illnesses had been caused by radioactive fallout. However, only 1,865 of them managed to win compensation. And half of those were already dead by then.
France exhibited the same cynical attitude when testing its nuclear bombs. They blew them up in Algeria from 1960 to 1962. The Reggane test range was built in the very heart of the Sahara desert. Four nuclear bombs were detonated on the ground there. The first, with a yield of 70 kilotons, was dubbed “Gerboise Bleue,” while the others were named “Gerboise Blanche,” “Gerboise Rouge,” and “Gerboise Verte.”
The French government’s official position was that all radioactive fallout had somehow been “successfully” contained within the Sahara. But several declassified documents have revealed that the wind blew radioactive dust thousands of kilometers across northern and central Africa. After the tests, elevated levels of radiation were even detected in Sicily and Spain.
Today Algeria believes that about 100,000 people fell ill and died as a result of the tests. The French maintain that no more than 500 were injured. In 2010, France passed a law that offered compensation to the Algerian victims. But only 20 people have actually received payments as a result.
After Algeria won its independence in 1962, the French continued their nuclear tests in their other colony in French Polynesia. In 1962 almost all the nuclear powers signed a treaty prohibiting nuclear detonations in the atmosphere. France, however, did not sign that document. Between 1966 and 1974, they blew up another 40 or so nuclear bombs in the air over the islands of French Polynesia.
Some deputies in the Assembly of French Polynesia tried to stop the tests. But those MPs were threatened with the warning that the military would be given direct control of the islands if they continued. And the locals did not fully grasp the extent of the danger. Winiki Sage, the president of the Economic, Social and Cultural Committee of French Polynesia, told the Guardian that “a lot of Tahitians and Polynesians went to France for the war. And when Mr. de Gaulle came here and said ‘we’re going to do some tests,’ no one could imagine it was going to be so bad for us … In the house of my grandmother there was a nice picture of a big nuclear bomb test.”
On July 2, 1966, the first blast took place on the now-infamous Moruroa atoll. “C’est beau,” was Charles de Gaulle’s response. Since then, about 127,000 people, both military and civilian, have been affected by the tests.
Radiation spread through the air and ocean, destroying the health of tens of thousands of more people. Levels well above the established safety threshold were detected on the islands of Polynesia. Documents that were declassified in 2013 and published in the newspaper Le Parisien showed that soon after the tests, the atmospheric content of plutonium in Tahiti, located a thousand kilometers from Moruroa, was five hundred times higher than what is considered safe.
Even worse was the official attitude toward the locals. Documents from the French military archives show that in 1966, when the wind blew a cloud of radioactive dust from the atoll of Moruroa toward the island of Mangareva, the military offered to evacuate that island’s population. But Paris dismissed the idea, insisting, “No evacuation for political and psychological reasons.”
Environmentalists were unsuccessful in their protests against the radioactive nightmare that the French were producing in the Pacific Ocean. The military forcibly boarded their ships and arrested the “Green” protestors. While the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was docked in the port of Auckland, French intelligence agents simply blew it up.
Nuclear tests were still going strong in French Polynesia right up until 1996. The local residents did not immediately appreciate the consequences. But today many of them claim that the islands’ high level of oncological diseases is due to radiation exposure. In 2006, even French doctors admitted that there was a link.
But officials in Paris refused to make a statement. In 2010, a law was passed in France that offered compensation to the people who had been injured by the nuclear tests. However, if even professional servicemen who have worked at the test sites have found it difficult to prove the connection between their illnesses and the nuclear blasts, what hope is there for ordinary Polynesians who simply do not have any documents they can use to file a claim for compensation? Of the 127,000 people who were affected by the tests, only 800 Polynesians have so far been able to submit properly completed claims. Only 11 have managed to collect any kind of meaningful payments.
The Assembly of French Polynesia has long battled for recognition of the fact that the Polynesians were the victims of bungled nuclear tests. Those MPs have appealed to the UN, staged protest marches and demonstrations in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, and organized media campaigns. On October 10, 2018, French Polynesia filed a lawsuit against France in the International Criminal Court, accusing that government of crimes against humanity. A successful verdict in this case could give hope to many others who have been victimized by the nuclear powers’ military exercises.