Tag Archives: Bravo nuclear test

Nuking Tahiti: the Moruroa Files

From 1966 to 1974, France blew up 41 nuclear weapons in above-ground tests in French Polynesia, the collection of 118 islands and atolls that is part of France. The French government has long contended that the testing was done safely. But a new analysis of hundreds of documents declassified in 2013 suggests the tests exposed 90% of the 125,000 people living in French Polynesia to radioactive fallout—roughly 10

The findings come from a 2-year collaboration, dubbed the Moruroa Files, between Disclose, a French nonprofit that supports investigative journalism; Interprt, a collective of researchers, architects, and spatial designers affiliated with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who focus on environmental issues; and the Science & Global Security program at Princeton. The findings were presented on 9 March on the project’s website, in a book, and in a technical paper posted to the arXiv preprint server.

The abandoned testing facility at the Moruroa Atoll. The atoll is at the risk of collapsing due to nuclear blasts

Declassified documents suggest actual exposures were between two and 20 times higher than France’s Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) estimates… Reasons for the discrepancies vary from test to test, he says. For example, CEA acknowledged that the first test, dubbed Aldébaran, exposed residents of the Gambier Islands to relatively high levels of fallout. But actual exposures were likely higher still… Although CEA noted that contaminated rainwater fell on the island, he says, it failed to consider that many residents likely drank the contaminated water, collected in household cisterns, for days.

Most important, the documents suggest a single test in 1974, called Centaure, exposed the entire population of Tahiti—87,500 people at the time—to fallout. French authorities set off a relatively tiny atom bomb with an explosive yield equal to 4 kilotons of TNT, and weather forecasts predicted that winds should carry fallout to the north. Instead, the wind blew to the west, carrying the plume directly over Tahiti. A new simulation based on data in the documents shows how the plume of radiation wafted over the island. CEA estimated that people on the island received a dose of about 0.6 mSv.  However, Phillipe and colleagues argue that CEA underestimated the total amount of radiation that accumulated on the ground over several days, didn’t account for radiation lingering in vegetables consumed later…

The new analysis moves the vast majority of French Polynesians past the exposure threshold to qualify for compensation. Philippe and Schoenberger would like to see France do away with the exposure standard and compensate anyone who lived through the tests and developed a qualifying cancer. “Our hope is to demonstrate that this kind of threshold can be prejudicial to claimants just because of the difficulties of proving exposure,” Schoenberger says.

Philippe estimates that, assuming a cancer rate of 0.2% per year, roughly 10,000 cancer patients or their families would qualify retroactively and that compensating them would cost about €700 million. Future cancers would cost about €24 million per year, he estimates. However, Hughes says it remains to be seen whether the French government will even acknowledge the analysis. “My fear is that they will simply ignore it,” Hughes says.

The declassified documents also show the French government routinely failed to warn Polynesians about the radiation risks, Philippe says. In the Centaure test, authorities could have warned Tahitians about the approaching fallout 2 days in advance, but did not. Ironically, Philippe notes, the United States, the Soviet Union, and other countries were monitoring the tests remotely. “Everybody knew what was going on,” he says, “except the Polynesians.”

Excerpt from Adrian Cho, France grossly underestimated radioactive fallout from atom bomb tests, study finds, Science, Mar. 11, 2021

The Runit Nuclear Tomb

[The debris left by the United States nuclear testing at the Marshall islands  were buried under] a vast structure is known as the Runit Dome. Locals call it The Tomb. Below the 18-inch concrete cap rests the United States’ cold war legacy to this remote corner of the Pacific Ocean: 111,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris left behind after 12 years of nuclear tests.  Brackish water pools around the edge of the dome, where sections of concrete have started to crack away. Underground, radioactive waste has already started to leach out of the crater: according to a 2013 report by the US Department of Energy, soil around the dome is already more contaminated than its contents.  Now locals, scientists and environmental activists fear that a storm surge, typhoon or other cataclysmic event brought on by climate change could tear the concrete mantel wide open, releasing its contents into the Pacific Ocean….

Enewetak Atoll, and the much better-known Bikini Atoll, were the main sites of the United States Pacific Proving Grounds, the setting for dozens of atomic explosions during the early years of the cold war.  The remote islands – roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii – were deemed sufficiently distant from major population centres and shipping lanes, and in 1948, the local population of Micronesian fishermen and subsistence farmers were evacuated to another atoll 200 km away.  In total, 67 nuclear and atmospheric bombs were detonated on Enewetak and Bikini between 1946 and 1958 – an explosive yield equivalent to 1.6 Hiroshima bombs detonated every day over the course of 12 years.

The detonations blanketed the islands with irradiated debris, including Plutonium-239, the fissile isotope used in nuclear warheads, which has a half-life of 24,000 years.  When the testing came to an end, the US Defence Nuclear Agency carried out an eight-year cleanup, but Congress refused to fund a comprehensive decontamination programme to make the entire atoll fit for human settlement again.

The DNA’s preferred option – deep ocean dumping – was prohibited by international treaties and hazardous waste regulations, and there was little appetite for transporting the irradiated refuse back to the US.  In the end, US servicemen simply scraped off the islands’ contaminated topsoil and mixed it with radioactive debris. The resulting radioactive slurry was then dumped in an unlined 350-foot crater on Runit Island’s northern tip, and sealed under 358 concrete panels.

But the dome was never meant to last. According to the World Health Organization, the $218m plan was designed as temporary fix: a way to store contaminated material until a permanent decontamination plan was devised.  Meanwhile, only three of the atoll’s 40 islands were cleaned up, but not Enjebi, where half of Enewetak’s population had traditionally lived. And as costs spiralled, resettlement efforts of the northern part of the atoll stalled indefinitely.  Nevertheless, in 1980, as the Americans prepared their own departure, the dri-Enewetak (“people of Enewetak”) were allowed to return to the atoll after 33 years.

Three years later, the Marshall Islands signed a compact of free association with the US, granting its people certain privileges, but not full citizenship.  The deal also settled of “all claims, past, present and future” related to the US Nuclear Testing Program – and left the Runit Dome under the responsibility of the Marshallese government.  Today, the US government insists that it has honoured all its obligations, and that the jurisdiction for the dome and its toxic contents lies with the Marshall Islands.  The Marshallese, meanwhile, say that a country with a population of 53,000 people and a GDP of $190m – most of it from US aid programs – is simply incapable of dealing with the potential radioactive catastrophe left behind by the Americans.

Today, Runitis still uninhabited, but it receives regular stream of visitors heading from neighboring islands to its abundant fishing grounds or searching for scrap metal to salvage.…Three decades after the Americans’ departure, abandoned bunkers dot the shoreline, and electric cables encased in black rubber snake across the sand.Nowhere on the beaches or the dome itself is there a warning to stay away – or even an indication of radioactivity.

The US has yet to fully compensate the dri-Enewetak for the irreversible damage to their homeland, a total amounting to roughly $244m as appraised by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal.+++ Many locals are deeply in debt, and dependent on a supplemental food program funded by the US Department of Agriculture, which delivers shipments of process foods such as Spam, flour and canned goods. The destruction a centuries-old lifestyle have lead to both a diabetes epidemic and regular bouts of starvation on the island….

Other – and more worrying – traces of Enewetak’s history have also reached China: according to a 2014 study published in Environmental Science & Technology, plutonium isotopes from the nuclear tests have been found as far a the Pearl River Estuary in Guangdong province.

Many people in Enewetak fear that one day the dome will break open, further spreading highly radioactive debris.  As catastrophic weather events become more frequent, recent studies – including 2013 study of the Runit Dome’s structural integrity carried out by the DoE – have warned that typhoons could destroy or damage the cement panels, or inundate the island. A 2013 report commissioned by the US Department of Energy to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory acknowledged that radioactive materials are already leaching out of the dome, but downplays the possibility of serious environmental damage or health risks….

Independent scientists say that salvaging Runit’s scrap metal may expose locals to much higher risks.“Those guys are digging in the dirt breathing in stuff in hot spots. That has to be hundreds of thousands times higher doses of potential health effects than swimming,” said Ken Buessler, a senior scientist and marine chemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who visited Runit and gathered samples of sediment in the lagoon earlier this year…

“Why Enewetak?” asked Ading, Enewetak’s exiled senator during an interview in the nation’s capital. “Every day, I have that same question. Why not go to some other atoll in the world? Or why not do it in Nevada, their backyard? I know why. Because they don’t want the burden of having nuclear waste in their backyard. They want the nuclear waste hundreds of thousands miles away. That’s why they picked the Marshall Islands.” “The least they could’ve done is correct their mistakes.”

Excerpts from Coleen Jose et al., The radioactive dome on Enewetak atoll, Guardian, July 3, 2015

+++In June 1983, the Agreement Between the Government of the United States and the Government of the Marshall Islands for the Implementation of Section 177 of the Compact of Free Association (referred to as 177 Agreement) established the Claims Tribunal “with jurisdiction to ‘render final determination upon all claims past, present and future, of the Government, citizens and nationals of the Marshall Islands which are based on, arise out of, or are in any way related to the Nuclear Testing Program.”The Tribunal was established in 1988.

See also UN Human Rights report Mission to the Marshall Islands

The Bikini Atoll Nuclear Experiment 60 years after

The Marshall Islands marked the 60th anniversary Saturday of a U.S. hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll, holding a commemorative program in the capital Majuro for people who suffered exposure to radiation from the United States’ biggest ever nuclear experiment.  The program began with a memorial walk by some 500 people in honor of the victims and survivors of the so-called “Bravo” test on March 1, 1954..Other participants included Rose Gottemoeller, acting U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security…

Acknowledging the sacrifices of the Marshallese people and recognizing the effects of nuclear testing, Gottemoeller said the United States “has acted on its responsibility” by continuously providing medical and environmental programs in the Marshall Islands, on top of the $600 million it has extended as direct assistance and subsides, financial support for rehabilitation of the affected atolls, site monitoring and ongoing healthcare programs…

But Loeak and local resident Nerje Joseph, 65, who was exposed to the radiation, dismiss Gottemoeller’s pronouncement as nothing new and lament that their demand for additional compensation for the victims and the cleanup of the islands continues to fall on deaf ears.  Loeak reiterated that based on the assessment of an independent tribunal, the legitimate claims for damages amount to more than $2 billion, making the $150 million contribution of the United States in 1986 “a tiny and inadequate drop in an ocean of pain and suffering.”

“We remain the closest of friends with the United States but there is unfinished business relating to the nuclear weapons testing that must be addressed if that legacy of distrust is to become one of mutual confidence and respect,” he said.  “The United States must finally come clean and live up to its responsibility to help the Marshall Islands live with the devastation caused by their nuclear testing,” he added.

Excerpt from, Marshall Islands marks 60th anniversary of Bikini Atoll nuclear test, Kyodo News International, Feb. 28, 2014

See also Elli Louka: International Environmental Law: Fairness, Effectiveness and World Order