French Nuclear Testing in Polynesia

Nuclear weapons have the power to cause vast destruction, but this damage is not limited to the battlefield. Nuclear testing is a difficult and dangerous undertaking that can have long-term environmental effects and cause irreversible damage to local peoples. The human damage ranges from radiation exposure and disease to culture loss and loss of political freedoms. French nuclear testing in Polynesia has had long-lasting effects on the people, economy, culture and environment of French Polynesia. When testing began, it radically changed the way that French Polynesia interacted with the outside world and the way it organized its own resources. Nuclear testing pushed the economy very rapidly from subsistence to European-style capitalism, and this quick transformation created significant long-term social effects.

The first detonation of a nuclear device occurred on 16 July, 1945 in New Mexico, when the United States successfully tested a fusion bomb. Although the United States became the first nuclear power, they were not alone for long. Figure 1 is a map of the location of nuclear tests done by the US, UK, China, Russia, and France.[1] France was the last country in the 1950s to develop a nuclear testing program. Just as other countries were negotiating to end nuclear proliferation, Charles de Gaulle pushed to make his country a nuclear power.[2] Political scientist Anthony D’Amato argues that France’s motivations for testing were less valid than those of the United States in the 1940s. While the US was trying to create a deterrent against attack, France was already part of NATO, which gave it nuclear protection. The French did not wish to be left out of the Nuclear Club or to be dependent on NATO, both of which would diminish their force de frappe, or ability to deter attack through military power. However D’Amato argues that this kind of nuclear proliferation did not give power to any one nation but instead increased the risk of atomic conflict. While there were many political reasons for France’s decision to test, the rights of the French Polynesian people were not given significant weight. D’Amato firmly concludes that, weighing the risks involved in testing, there was not sufficient need for France to begin a nuclear program when they did.[3]

Figure 1.
Location of nuclear tests by country. The first number indicates the number of tests while the second indicates the equivalent megatons of TNT of all the combined explosions. Nuclear fallout from these tests can be found around the world in soil and water samples.[4]

France began testing in the Sahara in Algeria, but when Algeria pushed for independence in the late 1950s France was forced to look elsewhere. Government documents released in the early 2000s reveal that France wanted to test in the Pacific originally but chose the Sahara because it was closer and easier to access.[5] The United States had already set a precedent for overseas testing when they used the Marshall Islands, so France felt justified in looking to the Pacific. France wanted to test in the Pacific because they wanted to develop the much more powerful hydrogen bomb. Testing these fission bombs was discouraged by other nuclear powers because the testing was more dangerous, so France wanted to test in an unobtrusive location.[6] French Polynesia didn’t have an airport and was halfway around the world, but when Algeria became unavailable France forcefully changed the Pacific into a viable option. The recently released documents reveal the thought process involved in the transition to the Pacific. If they had been released while testing was still in progress they could have incited protest, but now they have little power to harm the French government.[7]

One of the few geologically viable islands in the Pacific was Moruroa, an uninhabited atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago. It was large enough for an airport, distant from other inhabited islands, and downwind from Tahiti, which would help prevent radioactive fallout from reaching the capital. Ironically Moruroa means big secret in Tahitian; the plans for the islands were kept closely guarded and what eventually happened there is still not fully understood. Nearby Fangataufa, which is similar to Moruroa, was also developed for additional testing.[8] France had also considered testing on Ua Uka in the Marquesas Islands and on Rangiroa, another Tuamotuan atoll, but dismissed both because there was not enough space for an airport on either.[9]

By 1960 the French government had begun enacting a plan to both appease the Polynesian people and create the infrastructure for the massive military influx that would be required.[10] Polynesians were not told about the plans for testing until 1963 for fear that there would be protests. The most vital element missing in Tahiti was an airport, which was quickly built in Faa’a with the stated intention of improving tourism to the area. When the news of the testing program broke, the French government put a positive spin on it, claiming it would create jobs and improve business. While testing did do both of these things, it caused enormous damage to the culture and the environment in the process.[11]

French officials tried to quell dissenting political voices. Pouvanaa a Oopa was the Deputy for French Polynesia at this time and enjoyed enormous popular support.. When the plan for testing was announced he spoke out against it and called for independence from France. He fought against a new constitution that, if it had failed to pass the General Assembly, would have separated Polynesia from France.[12] The constitution passed in the end, and after giving a speech in Papeete Pouvanaa was arrested for using inflammatory language to incite a riot. He was sentenced to 8 years in a French jail and exiled from French Polynesia for 15 years.[13] In the end the President of the Polynesian General Assembly, Jacques-Denis Drollet, accepted the testing.

Nuclear testing occurred in French Polynesia from 1966 to 1996. The two atolls used for detonation were Moruroa and Fangataufa. There were a total of 210 nuclear tests performed on the two islands.[14] Nuclear weapons tests are classified in four categories based on the location of the bomb: exoatmospheric, atmospheric, underwater, and underground. Atmospheric tests are conducted in the stratosphere by either suspending the bomb from a tower or dropping it from a plane. If the bomb detonates too close to the ground, then irradiated debris will cover the area; it is considered the most environmentally destructive of all the types of testing and was performed in French Polynesian from 1966 to 1974. Underground tests are believed to be the most safe and became popular in the latter part of the testing period. The bomb is fully enclosed underground, and this is supposed to minimize nuclear fallout. However these tests can cause seismic activity and subsidence craters, and if the enclosure fails then radioactive material will be released into the surrounding area.[15] Testing was only moved underground in 1974 due to international protest about the dangers of atmospheric testing; France finally changed its policy when the “diplomatic cost outweighed the benefits.”[16] In 1985 the South Pacific Forum passed the Treaty of Rarotonga, which was supposed to create a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ). However France did not obey this prohibition and continued testing despite protests.[17]

Figure 2. Nuclear test on Moruroa[18]

Throughout this period international attempts were made to end nuclear testing and nuclear proliferation. In 1963, before testing started, all the nuclear powers had signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty except for China and France. The United States continued to put pressure on France to end its testing, and from 1992 to 1995 there was an informal non-testing period. However President Jaques Chirac announced plans to conduct a further 8 tests in 1995. These tests were supposed to finalize computer models, which would eliminate further need for testing, even though the United States had already offered to supply data for these models. The announcement was followed by international protest, boycotting, and rioting in Papeete. In the end only 6 tests were completed, and nuclear testing in French Polynesia ended in 1996.[19]

Figure 3. Protest in Papeete in 1995.[20]

After announcing the new series of tests, Chirac stated that no amount of protest would change the plans, but he may not have anticipated the strength of the local and international response to this decision. Initially Australia’s reaction was mild, but when New Zealand began boycotting French products and companies, Australia followed suit. In a rare political move, both countries temporarily removed their French ambassadors. Other countries around the world expressed outrage, and France rapidly lost face on the global stage. As historian Lorraine Elliot explains, France was seen as a bully who consistently ignored the risks associated with testing and arrogantly defied international attempts to create a nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The boycotting and political pressure were not enough to stop the tests, but the French government was shaken by the strength of the response.

The international response to the resumption of testing was small compared with the outrage in French Polynesia. Polynesians, already poor, dissatisfied and tired of the social upheaval brought about by testing, erupted in protest. The streets of Papeete were shut down by massive sit-ins after the Greenpeace protest boat, Rainbow Warrior II, was denied entry into the harbor.[21] After the first new test occurred on September 5, 1995 rioting broke out. Part of the airport in Faa’a was burned down and the city was ravaged.[22] Most of the looters were young, dissatisfied men. As the Mayor of Faa’a and President of French Polynesia, Oscar Temaru, said, “Is it any surprise that they turn to violence and looting when they see shops full of things they can never have?”[23] The flood of French people and goods in the 1960s dramatically changed the economy in Polynesia. By the 1990s these changes had created a vast lower class without the ability to improve their lives. (See Urbanization in Tahiti.) The resumption of nuclear testing revealed the anger that had been festering as a result of these changes and France’s involvement in the region.[24] As testing continued, the protests died out, but the image of Tahiti as a peaceful, romantic paradise had been shattered.[25]

Figure 4.
Rioting in Papeete in 1995[26]

Although nuclear testing in French Polynesia is over, its effects are still being felt. The fabric of modern Polynesian life was altered in this period. When the tests began, there was a sudden influx of French money, people, and goods. People whose families had been farmers for generations abandoned their fields to go work for the military. Food prices jumped and social structures collapsed. The population of Papeete doubled between 1960 to 1970 due to the massive immigration of French military personnel. These people bought land in Tahiti and the economy changed: European goods flooded the market because the new residents were still accustomed to a French lifestyle.[27] As the deputy mayor of Faa’a, Tokorangi Desire, explained, the airport in Tahiti opened the country to the world and increased tourism, but it was also a firm way for France to tie down the island. It enables France to closely control what happens in Tahiti because it is a direct artery into the capital for goods, people, and culture.[28]

To moderate Polynesian dissent, the French government increased aid money. This solidified the new franc-centered economy and made French Polynesia into the most western and modern of all the South Pacific countries,. The result was a persistent dependency relation.[29] The change from an agriculture-based economy to a capitalist one had an effect on many different industries. For example the production of vanilla dropped dramatically as farmers left their fields so that even today the vanilla economy is still struggling to recover.[30] The difficulty of this transition helps explain the frustration that was brought to the surface by the resumption of testing in the 1990s. The region is still working to revive its old productivity and stop the dependence on foreign goods.[31]

In addition nuclear testing caused radioactive fallout and elevated levels of radiation. Reports on the effects of radiation exposure for workers at the nuclear test sites and inhabitants of French Polynesia are few and far between. The data provided is often inconclusive or incomplete, and each author is hesitant to make the claim that nuclear testing has caused negative health effects. Vaitaire et al. studied thyroid cancer rates between 1985 and 1995 and found a higher rate amongst native French Polynesians than among comparable Hawaiians. However they do not conclude that this is necessarily due to the testing.[32] Veeken, a French doctor, attempted to study birth defects in French Polynesia but struggled with the lack of comprehensive studies and the resistance of government officials to be transparent about cancer records.[33]

Test site workers have also had trouble getting recognition for the diseases they developed while working with radioactive materials. Many claim that they were not properly warned about the risks associated with the work and now cannot get compensation for the health problems they developed. Moruroa e Tatou is a group of military veterans and test-site workers who are working to get recognition and compensation from France. It has been a slow battle in which France continuously denies that any harm was done.[34]

Figure 5.
Moruroa e Tatou monument in Papeete to victims of nuclear fallout.

Studies of the harm done to the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa are even more mixed than studies of cancer rates. The International Atomic Energy Agency claims that there is currently minimal radiation on the atolls and that both are safe for inhabitation.[35] A UN report on the risk to Pacific Islands concluded that a worst case, catastrophic failure of one of the underground test sites, would still cause only minimal environmental damage. There is risk that the severe cracking caused by repeated explosions could cause parts of the atolls to collapse, which would trigger a tsunami. A small slump already happened on a small corner of Moruroa, but French officials deny that there is enough cracking for the islands to be in danger.[36] France has controlled all of the studies that have been conducted; they have only allowed brief access to each atoll, and scientists have not been given full reign in their research. These atolls are currently closed and guarded, so it is difficult to get an unbiased report of the state of the island.[37]

The economic and environmental effects of nuclear testing are the most visible of the long-term consequences. Less apparent is the loss of culture associated with the rapid migration and urbanization. It is difficult to quantify this kind of loss. Stuart Kirsch’s case study of the Marshall Islands’ lawsuit against the United States provides an interesting precedent for defining culture loss. The Marshall Islands were devastated by nuclear testing, and in some cases people were forced to relocate to new islands. The inhabitants sued the US for the loss of culture, land and support systems that were associated with their lives before testing. Although they did not win the lawsuit, the US has promised to give aid to them and help rehabilitate the area.[38] The cultural loss in French Polynesia is less obvious because the changes are intertwined with modernization and economic development. But it is clear that Polynesia would be a vastly different place without the massive tourist infrastructure and European influence that was put in place during the period of nuclear testing.

French Polynesia has been irreversibly changed by nuclear testing; these changes run deep into the modern infrastructure, politics, and economy. There is still controversy about the environmental and health impacts because of a lack of published data. The health effects and environmental pollution, however much there may be, will fade with time. What may not be repairable are the economy, the culture and the cultural identity lost during this decades-long experiment.

Hannah Glover, Bowdoin College


[1] Steven L. Simon, Andre Bouville, and Charles E. Land, "Fallout from Nuclear Weapons Tests and Cancer Risks: Exposures 50 Years Ago Still Have Health Implications Today That Will Continue into the Future," American Scientist 94.1 (2006): 48. JSTOR. 25 January 2012.

[2] Anthony A. D'Amato, "Legal Aspects of the French Nuclear Tests," The American Journal of International Law 61.1 (1967): 69. JSTOR.. 25 January 2012.

[3] D'Amato, “Legal Aspects,”66-77.

[4] Simon et al., “Fallout,” 50.

[5] Jean-Marc Regnault, "France's Search for Nuclear Test Sites, 1957-1963," The Journal of Military History 67.4 (2003): 1224. JSTOR. . 25 January 2012.

[6] D'Amato, “Legal Aspects,” 67.

[7] Regnault, “France’s Search,” 1228.

[8] Miriam Kahn, "Tahiti Intertwined: Ancestral Land, Tourist Postcard, and Nuclear Test Site," American Anthropologist 102.1 (2000): 14. JSTOR. 25 January 2012.

[9] Regnault, “France’s Search,” 1239.

[10] Regnault, “France’s Search,” 1245.

[11] David Chappell, "French Polynesia," Contemporary Pacific 17.1 (2005): 193. Academic Search Complete. 25 January 2012.

[12] Regnault, “Frances’ Search,” 1240.

[13] J. W. Davidson, "French Polynesia and the French Nuclear Tests: The Submission of John Teariki," The Journal of Pacific History (1967): 150. JSTOR. 25 January 2012.

[14] “Nuclear Tests in French Polynesia: Could Hazards Arise?” International Atomic Energy Agency. Web. 19 January 2011.

[15] “Nuclear Testing” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 16 January 2012. Web. 19 January 2012.

[16] Karin Von Strokirch, "Pacific Campaign Weakens French Testing Resolve," Journal of Pacific History 30.3 (1995): 50. JSTOR. 25 January 2012.

[17] Paul F. Power, "The South Pacific Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone," Pacific Affairs 59.3 (1986): 456. JSTOR. 25 January 2012.

[18] Lorraine Elliott, "French Nuclear Testing in the Pacific: A Retrospective," Environmental Politics (1997) 6.2: 144.

[19] Tim Edwards, “Polynesians Fear 20-metre tsunami from nuclear atoll,” The Week 17 March 2012. Web. 23 March 2012.

[20] Lorraine, “French Nuclear Testing,” 148.

[21] Bengt Danielsson, “Poisoned Pacific: The Legacy of French Nuclear Testing,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (USA) 46:2 (1990): 26. Academic Search Complete. 25 January 2012.

[22] Kahn, “Tahiti Intertwined,” 19.

[23] Qtd. in Strokirch, “Pacific Campaign,” 53.

[24] Strokirch, “Pacific Campaign,” 51.

[25] Khan, “Tahiti Intertwined,“ 20.

[26] Davidson, “French Polynesia,” 150.

[27] Tokorangi Desire, Faa’a Town Hall,1 February 2012, Lecture.

[28] Chappell, “French Polynesia,” 193.

[29] Khan, “Tahiti Intertwined,” 18.

[30] Louise Panie, Director of Coordination and Projects for Vanille de Tahiti. Papeete, Tahiti, 2 February 2012, Lecture.

[31] Davidson, “French Polynesia,” 150.

[32] Florent de Vathaire, Beatrice Le Vu, and Cecile Challeton-de Vathaire, "Thyroid Cancer in French Polynesia between 1985 and 1995: Influence of Atmospheric Nuclear Bomb Tests Performed at Mururoa and Fangataufa between 1966 and 1974," Cancer Causes & Control 11.1 (2000): 59-63. JSTOR. 25 January 2012.

[33] H. Veeken, "French Polynesia: A Nuclear Paradise in the Pacific." BMJ: British Medical Journal (International Edition) (1995) 311.7003: 497. Academic Search Complete. 25 January 2012.

[34] Association des anciens travailleurs et victims. Moruroa E Tatou. 2006. Web. 21 January 2012.

[35] “Nuclear Tests in French Polynesia: Could Hazards Arise?” International Atomic Energy Agency. Web. 19 January 2011.

[36] J. Ribbe, and M. Tomczak, "An Impact Assessment for the French Nuclear Weapon Test Site in French Polynesia," Marine Pollution Bulletin 21.11 (1990): 536-42. Web of Science. 25 January 2012.

[37] Danielsson, “Poisoned Pacific,” 25.

[38] Stuart Kirsch, "Lost Worlds: Environmental Disaster, “Culture Loss,” and the Law," Current Anthropology 42.2 (2001): 167-98. JSTOR. 25 January 2012.

How to cite this page:
Hannah Glover. “French Nuclear Testing in Polynesia,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA. 2012. Web. [Date accessed]