Once upon a time, the French were busy nuking the tropical island paradise of French Polynesia. These nuclear tests took place between the 1960s and 1990s. These tests have forever affected the islands of French Polynesia and have left a lasting impact not only on French Polynesia but also on New Zealand (as well as firmed up New Zealand's anti-nuclear stance).
When on honeymoon in the paradise of Bora Bora in French Polynesia, it's crazy to think that a few years ago the idyllic French territory was a nuclear testing zone. The American counterpart of Bikini Atoll can be visited today where divers can discover the eerie sunken American nuclear fleet.
French Nuclear Testing In French Polynesia
In the beginning, France used Algeria as an early nuclear testing ground. It started testing in 1962 but soon had to stop as Algeria become an independent country (before that is was a part of France). In response, the French looked for a new testing site and settled on the Moruroa atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia.
The main site of French testing was Moruroa (they also used Fangataufa atoll) a remote atoll that is part of French Polynesia about 1,250 kilometers or 780 miles southeast of Tahiti. The French used the island between 1966 and 1996 for testing.
- Number of Tests: Variously Reported As 175 and 181 (Auckland Museum Claims 193)
The support base for the nuclear tests was housed on the atoll of Hao some 450 kilometers or 280 miles to the northwest.
The first bomb was exploded on the atoll in 1966 codenamed Aldebaran. The first bomb that was exploded in the lagoon was a plutonium fission bomb.
A Greenpeace book stated that the explosion sucked all the water from the lagoon and rained dead fish and mollusks on the surrounding atoll.
The neighboring atoll, the Fangataufa Atoll, was also used for nuclear testing alongside Moruroa.
International Pressure and The End of French Testing
With immense pressure from the world, in 1974 the French abandoned atmospheric testing and moved to underground testing. By this time countries - like New Zealand were outraged at the testing and New Zealand sent two frigates to the atoll in protest. The New Zealand Navy Museum goes into depth at explaining New Zealand's Navy's role in ending French atmospheric tests.
Following the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, no more nuclear weapons have been tested here and the site at Mururoa was dismantled. The atoll remains guarded by French Forces.
- Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: Banned Nuclear Testing
Around 110,000 people in French Polynesia are believed to have been affected by the radioactive fallout according to a new study that was reported by the BBC. That was almost the whole population of the area at the time.
The most contaminating of France's nuclear tests were done between 1966 and 1974. A particularly bad incident that contaminated Tahiti occurred in 1974 when the atomic cloud took a different trajectory than planned.
The epilogue came in 1995 when France again tested on the Fangataufa atoll after a three-year moratorium with the last test happening on 27 January 1996. Two days later on 29 January 1996, France announced it would accede to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and no longer test nuclear weapons.
Today both Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls are military zones and no one is permitted to enter without permission and they remain radioactive. Around 1,000 French forces remain stationed in French Polynesia.
One of the best places to learn about French nuclear testing is in New Zealand - it got very personal for New Zealand.
Learn About The French Testing In New Zealand
New Zealand has long protested nuclear weapons or any nuclear facilities of any kind. It has been a Nuclear Free Zone since 1987 - all nuclear weapons, nuclear-powered, and nuclear-armed ships are banned from using New Zealand ports or entering coastal waters.
One can learn more about the French nuclear testing in French Polynesia at the Auckland Museum in New Zealand (and online). The museum goes into how Britain, America, and France used the Pacific as a testing ground and how those projects will have a devastating impact on the local communities and the environment for generations.
- Monday to - Friday: 10 am - 5 pm
- Saturday, Sunday, and Public Holiday: 9 am - 5 pm
While in New Zealand, visit the Rainbow Warrior Memorial that displays the original ship propeller at Matauri Bay, New Zealand. This commemorates the attack on 10 July 1985 when the Rainbow Warrior was bombed by French government agents just before midnight with the loss of one life.
- Rainbow Warrior: The Greenpeace Ship Protesting French Nuclear Testing That The French Blew Up In New Zealand in 1985
- Rainbow Warrior Memorial: In Matauri Bay, New Zealand
The wreck of the Rainbow Warrior still rests 26 meters below the sea and has become an artificial reef. She was sunk by two explosions that killed the Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira.