Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Guest Post: Stephanie Mills on nuclear testing compensation

We approached Stephanie Mills to write a guest piece on the issue she actually went on Breakfast to talk about in the first place and she's written this great post in response to our request. Thanks so much to Stephanie for continuing to promote an issue of such importance despite attempts to derail media attention for it.

I thought of Marie-Therese Danielsson when France announced a couple of weeks ago that it would be "true to its conscience" and move to compensate victims of French nuclear testing.

Marie-Therese was one of the first people I met in Tahiti. She and her husband, anthropologist and Kontiki crew member Bengt Danielsson, wrote "Moruroa Mon Amour" to expose the effects of nuclear testing at Moruroa and Fangataufa - decades before any attack of conscience had gripped officialdom in Paris! Convinced that their only daughter's early death was a result of exposure to the tests, Marie-Therese and Bengt battled ridicule, death threats, spying from all manner of French and Tahitian intelligence services as well as daily hostility to get to the truth about what was really happening. Awarded the "Right Livelihood Award" in 1991 for "exposing the tragic results of and advocating an end to French nuclear colonialism" Marie-Therese and Bengt lived long enough to see the end of nuclear testing at Moruroa, if not this compensation announcement.

I think Marie-Therese would have welcomed the long overdue admission of responsibility from the French state. But as a voice of conscience, I think she would have pointed out that justice has still to be done for many of the victims. For example, the association of former Moruroa workers, Moruroa e Tatou says women in Te Ao Maohi (Tahiti-Polynesia) have the highest rate of thyroid cancer in the world. During the atmospheric testing programme, women gave birth to "jellyfish babies" - babies without limbs who died within hours. The state of the coral atolls, subjected to more than 190 nuclear tests, has still not been examined by any open and independent study. And there are a number of reasons to be somewhat skeptical about how generous France's conmpensation package really is.

Firstly, one of the reasons French Defence Minister Herve Morin announced the compensation package is because the French government is under siege from a number of court cases taken by military veterans and former test site workers. Later this month (27 April), a tribunal in Papeete is due to hear the case of eight former Polynesian workers, three of whom are still alive and suffering from cancers of the blood. The other five have already died, mainly from leukemia, and will be represented at the trial by their widows. The case is being supported by Tahiti's President Oscar Temaru, long-time anti-nuclear and pro-independence leader, who himself worked at Moruroa and connects his exposure to illnesses in his own family. (More details of the case)

Secondly, the 10 million euro package is open to claims from about 150,000 civil and military workers - so it isn't going to make anyone's fortune. And the compensation package announced in March was put up to replace more comprehensive laws sponsored by a lobby group Verite et Justice (Truth and Justice), with support from members of all political parties in the French National Assembly.

The narrower bill puts the burden of proof on to the workers and military personnel to prove their illnesses were caused by exposure to radiation. In many cases, workers either were never issued with dosimeters to measure radiation exposure, or the dosimeters have not been kept. Without a dosimeter and therefore proof of exposure to radiation, no compensation is likely to be awarded.

Moreover, the threshold for exposure levels has been set at 50 millisieverts a year - although the French Ministry of Defence claims that only three people were exposed to doses betwen 50mSv and 200 mSv during the testing programme! In fact, 50mSv is much higher than current standards used internationally for nuclear safety. For example, International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) recommended maximum permissible annual dosage for the public is just 1 mSv per year. While there are uncertainties measuring the health impacts of low radiation doses (10 millisieverts or less), the most recent reports on radiation safety conclude that every exposure to radiation produces a corresponding increase in cancer risk.

The compensation package also fails to include any impact on the communities of neighbouring islands which bore the brunt of decades of radioactive fallout. Australian journalist Nic Maclellan outlines the issues in more detail.

Ending testing in 1996 was one step forward, and acknowledging its responsibility for the illnesses, death and hardship the testing programme caused is certainly another. But these are only steps in the journey. Earlier this year, French Prime Minister committed to reduce the number of French nuclear missiles to less than 300.

It's time for France to keep its promise to act on its conscience and decommission all of its nuclear warheads. The victims of French nuclear testing would ask for no less.

(For a comprehensive look at France's nuclear programme, see http://www.francenuc.org/toc_e.htm )

Stephanie Mills, former co-ordinator of Greenpeace International's nuclear test ban campaign


stargazer said...

thanx for this post stephanie & for bringing these issues to our consciousness.

Deborah said...

This is breathtakingly cynical: announce a compensation package, which makes you look good and as though you are doing the right thing, but then make it virtually impossible for anyone to make a viable claim.

I can (vaguely) recall the French testing programme going on, and the bland reassurances from the French government that it was all perfectly safe. If so, why didn't they test their nukes somewhere much more convenient, like say, the Loire valley?

Many thanks for taking the time to write this, Stephanie.

backin15 said...

Thanks for this analysis Stephanie. I respect the commitment you've shown to this cause for so long and the insight and expertise you have.

In 1995, as part of a group led by former AUT Vice Chancellor John Hinchcliff, I went to France to be part of a protest against the resumption of testing. John, Tim Shadbolt, Marie Leadbetter and many others led the group which included lots of students (I was involved in student politics at the time). It was an enlightening experience; frustrating mostly despite meeting mainly sympathetic people. Others from the group are better placed than me to comment about its impact but I felt that it was a worthwhile experience and an important statement.

The French cynical exploitation of the South Pacific is unforgivable. I know they've got an appalling history of being victims of wars, I know they've got a right and need to defend themselves. But I fear you're right to point out the inadequacies of this 'package' and I'm grateful the thehandmirror have supported you with this platform.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anna said...

'Breathtakingly cynical' is exactly right. Some wrongs can never be meaningfully compensated, but this isn't even a gesture in the right direction. And, of course, the damage to Moruroa exceeds health effects for individual - damage to the environment has made people's way of life unsustainable. Nuclear testing in the Pacific was really one of the shittiest, cruelest and most racist events of last century, but somehow it went under the radar to a great degree.

unaha-closp said...

It's time for France to keep its promise to act on its conscience and decommission all of its nuclear warheads.

When was decommissioning promised?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Julie said...

Those trying to drag the debate down to Paul Henry's level are invited to go somewhere where that kind of thing is acceptable, ie back to Kiwiblog.