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Cancer Fears Emerge as Fallout of French Nuclear Tests
Published on October 13, 2006 by the Inter Press Service
Cancer Fears Emerge as Fallout of French Nuclear Tests
by Julio Godoy
 
PARIS - New evidence is emerging of cancers caused by French nuclear testing in its South Pacific islands from the 1960s.

Between 1966 and 1996 France carried out 192 nuclear tests in French Polynesia, a group of islands in the south Pacific. These included 42 atmospheric tests, in the face of opposition from local residents.

Now, 40 years after the tests began, the French government has finally started to admit that Polynesian inhabitants may have been right to fear the consequences of radioactivity.

Marcel Jurien de La Gravière, representative of the French Commission on Nuclear Safety, announced in Papetee, capital of French Polynesia last week that a "coherent and continued medical examination" would be proposed for inhabitants most likely affected by the tests.

Such testing will be offered to some 2,000 persons, he said.

Jurien de la Gravière admitted that six of the 192 tests had "affected in a significant manner some islands and atolls" in the region.

The French military carried out the six atmospheric nuclear tests between 1966 and 1974 on the islands Moruroa, Fangataufa, Magareva, Gambier, Tureia and Tahiti. These tests "represented a slight (health) risk", the ministry of defence now says.

Two of the Polynesian tests are particularly in question - the ones called Aldébaran (1966) and Phoebe (1971). According to new official figures these tests released far higher radiation than acknowledged so far.

Up to 150,000 people inhabited the islands in the region at the time. Some 20,000 other people worked at nuclear test sites during the 30 years of testing.

The change in the French government's position comes after Florent de Vathaire, a researcher at the National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM, after its French name) reported that the nuclear tests closely correlate with the appearance of thyroid cancer typically associated with radioactivity.

Florent de Vathaire, head of the epidemiological cancer unit at INSERM found "a statistically significant relation" between the nuclear tests and the incidence of thyroid cancer. De Vathaire studied some 240 cases of thyroid cancer reported in the islands.

On July 17 this year, de Vathaire presented his findings to the ministry of defence, and urged it to declassify military reports that he said confirm the findings.

"I would like to study the data contained in the classified documents, which would allow us to confirm in a more precise manner the nature of the health dangers represented by the tests," de Vathaire told IPS. Cancer victims and their relatives in the French Polynesia have made similar demands.

"So far, the French authorities have said that the nuclear bomb tests did not represent any danger," Patrice Bouveret, director of the Observatory of French Nuclear Weapons, an independent group, told IPS. "Now, the same authorities are saying that there was indeed a 'slight' risk."

But this admission too comes on the basis of reports by military officers, he said. "Nobody else has seen the original documents to verify such claims. If the victims would have these official reports, they could act legally and demand that justice be done."

The questions are not confined to the south Pacific islands. France carried out 17 tests in Reggane region in the Algerian Sahara in 1961 and 1962, just before Algerian independence.

Health activists and affected people who have come together as the Association of Veterans of the French Nuclear Tests (AVEN) in French Polynesia and in the Algerian Sahara are fighting for declassification of the reports, and for recognition by the French authorities that the nuclear tests have caused a high number of cancers in these regions.

Jean-Paul Teissonière, legal counsellor of AVEN and of the Polynesian association Mururoa e Tatou has been lodging complaints against the French authorities since 2003.

One aim is to obtain pensions from the French state for the victims and their relatives, he told IPS. "But in order to establish this causality link between the tests and the numerous illnesses we have to argue by presumption unless the authorities release the classified documents."

Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service.

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