Sick and dying former workers of French Polynesian nuclear test sites have finally won a crucial victory in their campaign for compensation but fear it may have come too late.Three former workers and five widows accuse the French government and contractors of failing to protect workers from illness-causing nuclear fallout during France’s nuclear test programme. In the wings are 300 other workers who have cancer, children with deformities or whose children died soon after birth.
Last week, Papeete’s employment court found that France must answer allegations that Polynesian workers were exposed to illness-causing radiation in the course of their work. The depositions hearings were deferred four times as the court bowed to French demands for more time.
However, the win in Papeete comes just days after a decision in Paris that could dash their hopes of a pay-out.
The French government has announced a bill to compensate sick army veterans and other former workers of test sites in Algeria and French Polynesia. However, compensation would only be made to those exposed to 50 millisieverts (measure of radiation dose) of toxicity in a year. Only three French veterans of Pacific tests – army pilots who flew through mushroom clouds – were exposed to this massive level. All are dead.
The International Commission of Radiological Protection sets the maximum annual permissible dose of one millisievert a year, at which 1930 former French veterans, Polynesian and Saharan workers would be eligible for compensation.
New Zealand aid agency Christian World Service, which has long supported the association backing claims for compensation, Moruroa e Tatou, wants the French government to own up to its responsibilities.
The workers are entitled to compensation and health care for cancers which were directly caused by testing, says Christian World Service campaigns coordinator Gillian Southey.
Anger by New Zealanders over France’s nuclear testing in the Pacific peaked with the 1985 bombing of the Rainbow Warrior as it was moored at Auckland. France’s three-decade Pacific test programme was finally scrapped in 1996. Although France carried out some clean-up and rehabilitation of test sites on Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls, it did little to assist its former workers.
In 2006, an inquiry by the French Polynesian assembly found some diseases, like acute myeloid leukaemia, were four times more common in Polynesia than the rest of the world.
Before announcing the bill, French politicians consulted the French veteran’s association AVEN, but excluded Moruroa e Tatou, which represents the largest single group of workers affected by French nuclear testing.
Moruroa e Tatou president Roland Oldham says the exclusion amounts to discrimination of the Polynesians. The association’s coordinator, John Doom, is preparing to fly to France next week to petition members of the French parliament.
Doom, a great-grandfather, devotes most of his energies to seeking justice for the 4300 former workers represented by Moruroa e Tatou.
The compensation bill is, at least, recognition by France after nearly 50 years that people were contaminated during the French nuclear tests, he says. If the French Parliament finally adopts a law granting compensation, it is because of the determination of victims of nuclear tests, their associations and supporters and not because of any generosity of France’s Ministry of Defence, Doom says.
One of the three French Polynesian former workers suing the French remains critically ill with thyroid cancer. He was promised passage to Paris three months ago for treatment but is repeatedly denied the trip.
“Nobody knows why. He keeps being told “tomorrow, tomorrow” but he’s still here with his suitcase, waiting,” Doom says. “The fight is far from being finished.”
10 December 2008