Tahiti: Swimming in Fallout

by Hugh Mungus

Is it mandatory for governments to hate anything resembling a tropical utopia? If not, why do the sovereignties of humanity continue to contaminate idyllic, island locales?

For those who've spent well-deserved vacation time unwinding in Tahiti, you may find it psychologically beneficial to skip the following. Becoming aware this atoll is immersed in radioactive fallout, after you've lounged about this Shangri-La, isn't comforting.

It all began in 1966 with Aldebaran - a 200 kiloton atomic test conducted by France. Thirty years, 193 trials later, French Polynesia - the island chain of which Tahiti is a part - was at last released from nuclear Hell. Forty-one aboveground trials were commenced on the atoll of Moruroa. One hundred and forty-seven subterranean tests - at both this archipelago and adjacent Fangataufa - were also executed.

Although the explosions have ceased, the lethal fallout will remain beyond your lifetime.

France's former leader, Charles de Gaulle, convinced the French Polynesian government detonating roughly 200 nuclear bombs within its borders would be beneficial for this string of islands. The influx of industry was, he asserted, a catalyst for this region's debilitated economy.

The only difference between a politician and a used car salesman? The price of his suit.

What sparked the impassioned need to annihilate the denizens of this territory? Had these people committed crimes so repugnant they warranted the utmost punishment?

Akin to Britain in the '50s, the government of France was petrified they were being left behind in the race nobody wins - that of nuclear arms. As a result, this Parisian nation catapulted into atomic absurdity, in a desperate attempt to rival the genocidal forces possessed by countries with nuclear capabilities. France began a policy of exploding everything it could, and lying about the extent of damage to the intended targets.

The atolls composing French Polynesia housed about 75,000 inhabitants - none of whom were enlightened regarding the severity of nuclear tests being conducted in their very own backyards. Fangataufa and Moruroa were typically the objects of decimation.

Although France's Center for Pacific Experiments (CEP) reassured island residents they were in no danger, monitoring devices were recording readings near 70 times "safe limits."

Citizens were tested for heightened levels of radioactivity, but not provided results. Hence, these natives erroneously believed they weren't in harm's way. After all, no news is good news, right? Wrong. Even though endemic inhabitants commenced life as usual - feeding on regional fruits and vegetables - it wasn't long before they realized French scientists on the atolls were no longer eating local produce.

A clandestine Telex from the Radiation Safety Officer stationed on adjacent Mangareva Atoll in 1966 stated:

Minister informed radiation not negligible. Stop. Soil contaminated. Stop. Await instructions for decontamination and provisions. Stop.

It's been alleged Philippe Millon - Chief Doctor for the Safety Department of the CEP - wrote a furtive report assessing the situation after weapons trials began. Asserting he'd tested vegetation on Mangareva, Millon found the flora in question to be as radioactive as that studied at Chernobyl in 1986, following the nuclear catastrophe in the Ukraine.

In the 1960s, the World Health Organization (WHO) suggested the highest allowable levels of radioactive contamination in foodstuffs to be 270 picocuries per gram. Vegetables sampled in 1966 in Mangareva registered 18,000 picocuries per gram.

Although the Partial Test Ban Treaty - which forbade atmospheric nuclear trials - was implemented in 1963, France failed to recognize this mandate, and continued its barrage on Tahiti.

Sarcastic wisecracks were made concerning this neophyte to the Atomic Club, in comparison to the power of the United States or the Soviet Union. The Parisian nation was viewed as having a Napoleon Complex - only able to destroy humanity once - while the big boys could do so thousands of times.

During 1968, France became the fifth nation - including the U.S., the U.S.S.R., Britain and China - to test a hydrogen bomb. This event, occurring at Fangataufa, yielded a 2 megaton blast - 100 times more devastating than the detonation at Hiroshima, Japan.

In France's defense, they did construct fallout shelters for occupants of adjacent islands. These buildings were made of meager, corrugated metal, contained sand floors, and provided no protection against radionuclides. Residents would've been just as safeguarded, if they'd been bequeathed huts made of cardboard and pigeon dung. Vive la France!

In addition, citizens were allowed to leave these "impenetrable fortifications," and recommence everyday life - farming, fishing, swimming - mere hours following a nuclear test. Unbeknownst to these folk, the air, soil, and water they were making use of was awash in lethal radiation.

Not only were endemic peoples of this region not informed of the austere nature of these trials, French soldiers were kept in the dark.

When radiation sirens sounded on Tureia Atoll - after the 1971 Encelade test - they were turned off so recruits could fall back to sleep. Similar to silencing your car alarm, while your vehicle is being broken into, this allowed harm to take hold, as the populace was none the wiser.

Rainfall from this trial accumulated in outdoor water tanks, where soldiers brushed their teeth. Servicemen continued consuming seafood and vegetation from this region. Troops were often allowed to return to Moruroa a day or two following a nuclear test, and did so frequently garbed in shorts and other non-protective clothing.

In order to measure these trials, planes typically flew through the mushroom clouds generated by the explosions. Thus, these aircraft were highly irradiated, and cleaned on a tarmac adjacent a tennis court, where servicemen engaged in sport. Hence, the spray of foam and water - now also radioactive - coming off these planes drifted into the adjoining athletic facility, inundating those ill-fated enough to have been present.

A myriad of cancers, cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, and aberrant skin afflictions are now commonplace throughout Tahiti.

In 1983, a squad of scientists from Australia and New Zealand - referred to as the Atkinson Mission - were permitted to investigate the test sites. These authorities concluded underwater rocks comprising Moruroa Atoll housed immeasurable amounts of radioactive waste that will eventually discharge into the ocean.

Geologist Professor Peter Davies, of this group, referred to this sequence of islands as "a time bomb. It's a high level nuclear waste dump in the middle of the ocean [...]." According to researchers, this inevitable next phase of radioactive fallout - much like an unexpected fart on the Paula Deen show - can occur at any moment.

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