For 28 years from 1968, Raymond Pia worked at “ground zero”, the detonation area of the incongruously-named Pacific Experimentation Centre, France’s atomic testing programme at Moruroa and Faungataufa atolls. Pia, a French Polynesian, was close to nearly all atmospheric explosions during this time, and says the prostate cancer he suffers today is the result of nuclear fall-out.
In testimony he hopes will one day be read before a court, Pia says he witnessed all the atmospheric tests of 1970 aboard a French vessel that sat so close to shore during the tests in Moruroa lagoon, the crew was “within sight of the coconut trees of Moruroa”. After the tests, Pia and the crew had to handle the weapon heads using only gloves and safety shoes. “My colleagues and I thought of the risks of contamination but we had to work and the bosses told us it was not dangerous.”
Throughout his career, he never carried a radiation monitoring device but a “spectro” reader was passed over him at his annual medical examination and blood samples were taken. In 1982, France’s Atomic Energy Commission distributed a booklet to the workers “which explained the dangers of radioactivity,” he says. “This booklet was in French and most Tahitians do not read French,” Pia says.
In 2002, Pia was diagnosed with prostate cancer and operated on. A week after the operation, he was evacuated to Paris for chemotherapy.
Joseph Kohumoetini and the crew of La Maurienne wore sunglasses to watch “the atomic mushrooms” in 1969 and 1970, 30km or 40km from the firing site. In 1971, Kohumoetini started work as a civilian bricklayer at Moruroa, working for a private firm contracted to the French government. “We had building sites on certain zones which were surrounded by cordons hung with pictures of skulls. When we had to do masonry in the closed area, one (worker) removed the cordons and the panels with the skulls. When we finished, the cordons were put back in place.”
“Of all my time at Moruroa or Fangataufa, I never carried a dosimeter or wore protective clothing,” he says in his testimony.
The effects of testing were born out in Kohumoetini’s children, he says. Of his 11 children, six died soon after birth. One of the survivors, Janine, was born with a malformed heart. She was hospitalized in France, and operated on aged eight months. His last child, Joseph, has a skin disease. His grandson also suffers a skin condition
Between 7000 and 10,000 French Polynesians worked for the French government or subcontractors during the three decades of testing on Moruroa. With 46 atmospheric tests between 1966 and 1974, most at Moruroa, French Polynesia experienced the equivalent of 475 Hiroshimas.
Pia and Kohumoetini are in no doubt their ill-health or their children’s ill-health was due to exposure to radiation during nuclear tests. With the help of Association Moruroa e Tatou, which represents 4300 former workers, they are trawling through the complexities of French legalese and bureaucracy to access medical records in a bid to eventually obtain compensation.
Pia and Kohumoetini are among the most ill of the 300 former workers seeking recognition that their illnesses – and those of their children’s – were related to an unsafe work environment. Moruroa e Tatou says that 70 per cent of its members suffer illness as a result of suspected contamination. Last week, Pia, 63, had to return to hospital.
Time is quickly running out in their fight for compensation. In 2005, six former workers and four widows of former workers started legal action against French authorities. Today the number of plaintiffs is down to eight - three living workers, all former colleagues of Pia and Kohumoetini, and five widows of former workers. The eight plaintiffs all suffer or suffered cancers of the blood, like leukaemia.
On September 15, a deposition hearing in Papeete’s tiny Employment Tribunal courtroom will finally move the matter on.
It is the eight plaintiffs’ last hope for justice and for compensation. At the hearing, lawyers for the Pacific Experimentation Centre, France’s Atomic Energy Commission, the Ministry of Defence and contractors to the French government will present their findings into testing, and a date will hopefully be set for a full court hearing, probably in December.
Moruroa e Tatou believes its case is strong. The eight plaintiffs have or had diseases recognised as being related to exposure to radiation, according to the list of occupational diseases applicable in France and in Polynesia. On several recent occasions French courts ruled that French veterans with cancer could have their diseases classified as occupational illnesses.
“We have no doubt these eight will win their case because you can’t get leukaemia on the beach, huh? We are afraid that even if the judge decides in our favour, the army in France, the Defence Ministry, all will appeal the decision and it will take another year,” says Moruroa e Tatou’s coordinator John Doom.
“If the court delays again, the last three will die before they see justice. They are really not in good health.” If the men had been born in France, their descendants could continue with the claim. But when a French Polynesian complainant dies, only their widow can continue the legal battle.
Former Polynesian workers have suffered leukaemia, thyroid cancer, cardiovascular problems and skin disease as a result of testing, Doom says. The children of many workers have suffered ill-health or disabilities; wives testify of miscarriages, stillbirths or deaths shortly after birth. Doom says 700 French Polynesians are sent to France for medical treatment each year.
In 2002, France allowed former workers to examine their medical files but many Polynesians have found accessing them bureaucratic and technical. In June this year, French Overseas Junior Minister Yves Jégo provided Moruroa e Tatou the names of three independent experts through which Moruroa e Tatou could access archived documents relating to nuclear files.
In 2006, an inquiry called by the French Polynesian assembly into the health and environmental impacts of the 46 atmospheric tests confirmed fall-out from the 1960s atmospheric tests on nearby islands. However, the French government refused to co-operate with the inquiry. The commission said some diseases, like acute myeloid leukaemia, which is considered to be induced by radioactivity, were four times more common in Polynesia than in the rest of the world.
In August that year an official French medical research body found a small but clear increase in thyroid cancer among people living within 1000 miles of nuclear tests on French-owned Polynesian atolls between 1969 and 1996.
The former workers are buoyed by the recent French veterans’ victories for compensation for the same illnesses. “I am confident that our court cases will be successful because similar cases in court in France have been won. We are expecting the same court treatment for the Tahitians,” Doom says.
The eight plaintiffs will eventually seek an average NZ$358,000 each in compensation. The medical files of Pia and Kohumoetini and another 48 former workers are with the association’s Paris-based lawyer and Doom hopes around 300 will one day seek compensation. The association has started with the strongest cases, those suffering leukaemia. “We have around 300 cases which can go to court but we will go step by step. Don't forget that we are fighting against the French Government which has all the power,” Doom says.
The September 15 hearing will be the third attempt to hold the hearing.
At the last hearing, in June, lawyers for French agencies delayed proceedings, Doom says, arguing they needed more time to prepare their conclusions, to consult experts, more so as the facts were old. One of the widows decried the delays, saying France was “waiting for everyone to die”. The court president, fed up with delays and recognizing that time was running out for the three living plaintiffs, fixed a limit for depositions from the French agencies of September 15. “After that date, depositions or not, pleading will take place for a judgment at the end of the year or the beginning of 2009.”
Doom says it was satisfying to note the judge appeared as impatient as the members of the association.
Moruroa e Tatou president Roland Oldham says the president’s ruling fixed the legal marathon for the former workers. But he’s counting on an appeal, on requests for expertise and counter-evaluations by the French. “One will need courage to endure the snail’s pace of justice.”
Doom is now preparing to go to France at the end of the month for further meetings with lawyers.
“French authorities think that we will give up after a while. As long as we have the possibility with the help of our partners, France authorities will not sleep well at night.
“Why, when the French worked, after three or four hours after testing they had security equipment, and the Tahitian had only his shirt? They didn’t have gloves or shoes, why? Can the French explain?”
He sums up the anger of French Polynesians: “Our people were used like machinery,” Doom says.Christian World Service supports Moruroa e Tatou. It has contributed to the association’s legal fund and accepts donations for the association’s work.
By Sandra Cox
Media Officer, CWS
Published in The Press, Christchurch 6/9/08