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“Just Cover Your Eyes” – The Toll Of Decades Of Nuclear Tests In French Polynesia

More than 15 years after the end of French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, 720 people afflicted with cancer and other illnesses have sued France for compensation.

Nuclear testing in Mururoa atoll, 1970 (Point Zero Canopus)
Nuclear testing in Mururoa atoll, 1970 (Point Zero Canopus)
Christine Chaumeau

PAPEETE - Lucien Faara was a farmer on Tahaa Island, in French Polynesia. In 1968, he left his island for Mururoa atoll, where he hoped for a more stable income than his taro field was yielding. For eight years he worked as a laborer on the sites where the Pacific Experimentation Center (CEP) and the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) held 210 nuclear weapons tests between 1966 and 1996.

Farra died from bronchopulmonary cancer in 2004. Since 2005, his widow has been asking the courts to recognize her husband's sickness and death as a result of radioactive contamination. She brought her case to the compensation committee (Civen) created in 2010 to acknowledge and compensate French nuclear weapons testing victims, to no avail.

She is currently in the Papeete administrative court in Tahiti appealing against the Civen's decision to reject her compensation claim, along with six former workers and their beneficiaries who have suffered the same fate. It is their third and last judicial recourse. Previously, they had also lodged a claim in the Labor Court against the CEA, which they accused of not taking enough anti-contamination security measures.

A cancer epidemic

"I want to forget. But it is very difficult to see my colleagues die," says Robert Voirin, a former Mururoa worker. "They told us to put our hands on our eyes and to turn our backs on the mushroom," he adds. In 1998, he was diagnosed with lymphoma. On May 21, the Labor Court heard testimony on his medical case. The court will rule on July 16. "I'm not expecting much," admits Voirin. "I just want to know if there is a risk the sickness will be passed on to my children."

A civil court found the CEA guilty of causing Lucien Faara's death. That did not stop the atomic commission's lawyer, Franck Dremaux, from asserting that there was no link between the sickness and the nuclear tests- adding that nuclear testing, atoms and nuclear weapons were scary, but that such a controversy had no place in a courtroom.

Out of the 720 civilian and military cases presented to the Civen, only four have obtained compensation, ranging between 16,000 and 60,000 Euros. All of the Polynesian cases were rejected. "They are waiting for us to die one after the other so that there are fewer people to compensate," says a disillusioned Voirin. "It's humiliating," adds Roland Oldham, from Mururoa e Tatou, a defense association created by former workers.

The Civen justified rejecting the cases by qualifying the link between nuclear testing and pathologies as "insignificant."

The Mururoa e Tatou association wants a complete overhaul of the compensation system, and the Polynesian government has asked for a meeting with new French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. Bruno Barrillot, who specializes in monitoring the nuclear testing fallout in French Polynesia, hasn't forgotten that new Justice Minister Christiane Taubira had submitted a law on this in 2009, just as Marie-Hélène Aubert, French president François Hollande's advisor had seven years earlier. It should also be noted that Mururoa e Tatou's banner was a gift from the Nantes' municipal council, led by Ayrault. During each hearing, it is unfurled in front of the Papeete court.

Read the article in French in Le Monde.

Photo - Point Zero Canopus

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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