French Polynesia, a French colonial territory in the Pacific, made up of hundreds of islands and atolls, including Tahiti, was the site of dozens of nuclear tests conducted by France over a period of 30 years.
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France conducted 193 nuclear tests between 1966 to 1996 at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls in French Polynesia, including 41 atmospheric tests until 1974 that exposed the local population, site workers, and French soldiers to high levels of radiation.
A recent study carried out in collaboration between French news website Disclose, researchers from Princeton University and British firm Interprt have yielded new data about the impact of the tests in the area and the numbers of people affected.
Researchers have delved into declassified French military documents, calculations, and testimonies to reconstruct the tests' impact. They have concluded that around 110,000 people in French Polynesia were affected by the radioactive fallout. This figure represents "almost the entire" population at the time, according to the research.
Over the course of two years, researchers analyzed around 2,000 documents released by the French military and recreated the impact of "the most contaminating" of France's nuclear tests carried out between 1966 and 1974.
In one test over the Mururoa Atoll on 17 July 1974, the nuclear cloud was carried by the wind following a trajectory other than planned. Almost two days later, "the inhabitants of Tahiti and the surrounding islands of the Windward group were subjected to significant amounts of ionizing radiation," the report says. The area was home to 110,000 people, including Tahiti's main city, Papeete, with 80,000.
The study also revealed that the level of radiation emanating from the French tests was between two and 10 times higher than the estimates provided by France's Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in a 2006 report. One of the reasons for the disparity is that the CEA "did not always take into account the drinking of contaminated rainwater" when calculating the dose of radiation individuals were likely to have been exposed to.
The CEA study was used as the basis for determining whether people were eligible for compensation from the French government.
The head of France's nuclear victim's compensation committee, Alain Chrisnacht, has indicated that the fallout over the Tahiti area had already been documented and a large number of requests for compensation had been agreed.
But according to the report, only 63 Polynesian civilians had received compensation so far.