France's dirty little atomic bomb testing secrets

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A decade after nuclear testing ended at Fangataufa and Mururoa atolls, the French cone of silence remains firmly in place, as Polynesian politician Tea Hirshon has found. "They are traditionally non-cooperative, and they are also covering up some stuff."

As head of a commission of inquiry set up to examine the effects of nuclear testing, Ms Hirshon will formally table its report in the Territorial Assembly in Papeete on January 26. She says the report does not make any radical new claims and should be treated as an exploratory look at work that will continue for years.

Paris authorities tried to stop the commission's work in unsuccessful court bids, Ms Hirshon says.

Across the board, from the military to the high commission in Tahiti to the French department of health and even the weather service Meteo France, there has been no cooperation. "All the official mail we sent them has received no answer."

Ms Hirshon believes the authorities were using the threat of court action to halt the flow of information. "What is really a pity is that they don't even have the courtesy of writing us a letter. This makes us say that there is no difference between their attitude 40 years ago, 30 years ago, 10 years and now."

The report of the commission of inquiry is inevitably incomplete.

"We were hoping to have more documents, like the maps of the weather department when they were exploding bombs in the atmosphere.

"What we realised is that, even within other official French organisations, like the health department, they don't give the information."

At the same time the commission was doing its work, a French medical scientist was studying thyroid cancer rates in French Polynesia – the world's highest. That doctor was not getting any documents either.

"I think it is the way the military classify documents, and they don't want to give it."

France conducted 41 atmospheric nuclear tests over Mururoa and Fangataufa between 1966 and 1974. It followed up with 134 underground nuclear tests at the same sites between 1975 and 1991. Eight more tests took place in 1995 and 1996.

Paris refused to allow the commission members on to Mururoa and Fangataufa.

"It shows you how France treats us. What we can say is that Mururoa and Fangataufa are under surveillance. There is plutonium in those atolls and, there is definitely a potential danger."

There is a fear that Mururoa atoll could crack open. "It already has cracks in the reef . . . in the case of some movement under the sea, the poison could be released, and then carried on the currents."

What was discovered only last year, through a leak of military secrets in Paris, was that the first test, Aldebaran, on July 2, 1966, sent radioactive fallout over Mangareva, 450 kilometres from Mururoa.

The papers showed that the local people were not told, but that key military officials who were on the island suddenly fled when it was realised that the cloud was on the way.

Among those fleeing, according to Ms Hirshon, was pro-France politician Gaston Flosse, who was French Polynesia's territorial president from 1984 till 2004. He was defeated by current President Oscar Temaru to whose Tavini Huiraatira (Union for Democracy Party) Ms Hirshon belongs. Mr Flosse refused to give evidence. "He was also aboard the plane that came to Mangareva. That plane left in a hurry and he was on it, and we want to ask him questions about that.

"He never answered, never came. I think this is very important; that someone who has been the president for 20 years refuses to be auditioned."

Only last year did France come clean on the fallout.

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