Summer of 68: Prague, Chicago, Paris… Moruroa


It has been fifty years since the famous “summer of 68” when street protests and strikes led many to wonder if a revolution was about to topple the post-WWII order. As Hunter S. Thompson perceived so well a few years later, we were never even close. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas he wrote, “So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” The fatal flaw of the revolutionaries was that they never understood the fallacy in their thinking: “the desperate assumption that somebody, or at least some force, is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.”[i]

A sign that things were proceeding without disruption in 1968 could have been found in a remote corner of the world, far from the chaos on the streets of Chicago, Prague and Paris. In spite of the late recognition in the early 1960s, by the United States and the USSR, that it was madness to continue atmospheric testing of thermonuclear weapons, France proceeded to test its own weapons in the air over French Polynesia until 1974, and continued with underground tests until 1996. On August 24, 1968, the first French thermonuclear device, Canopus, exploded with a 2.6 megaton yield. For contrast, consider the US Castle Bravo test of 1954 which yielded 15 megatons, 9 more megatons than its expected yield.

I’ve covered this chapter of world history in other blog posts, and I add to it here with a witness testimony given in Hiroshima in 2002. I believe it must have been translated into Japanese at the time, but this may be the first English translation of the short speech delivered by Étienne Tehumu, an inhabitant Tureia, the atoll closest to Moruroa and Fangataufa where the tests took place.

Tureia: In the span of three years, seven people died of cancer [ii]

Tureia Atoll

Étienne Tehumu, Hiroshima, August 5, 2002

I would like to first thank the group Gensuikin [Japan Congress Against A- and H-Bombs] for inviting us to this conference. I have come here to represent the atoll of Tureia, a small island 100 kilometers from Moruroa.

My name is Étienne Tehumu. I am a thirty-five year old native of Tureia, where I have always lived. I was born one year after the first nuclear tests and I lived on Tureia during the entire thirty years of the nuclear tests (1966-1996). I am married and we have had seven children. My younger brother was stillborn and deformed. Our fourth child was born with a heart murmur and a hole in her heart. I come from a large family of eight children.

My father, Tehumu Tane, was employed by the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique (CEA). His job consisted of taking photos of mushroom clouds of atmospheric atomic explosions—from Tureia. He had a partner in this task. They were stationed in towers, and at the time of an explosion they had to take photos at different stages of the radioactive cloud’s growth, until it had risen quite high and spread quite far. They then received orders from CEA officers to rapidly leave the post and get over to the village on the other side of the lagoon, about fifteen kilometers distant. Later, my father fell ill. He had a lung disease which later turned into cancer. My father died last year on July 19th, 2001, in Papeete. We brought his body home to be buried on Tureia. My aunt, my father’s sister, has breast cancer.

I would like to tell you that within three years, 1999-2001, seven people like my father died of lung cancer. For a small population of 100 people, seven people dying in a short period from the same disease is something that raises a lot of questions. Why? All of these people worked without protective clothing and glasses. The rest of the people on the island watched the radioactive clouds with glasses but no other protection.

The Center for Experimentation in Polynesia (CEP) built on our island an atomic shelter where everyone had to stay on average for about three days during each atmospheric nuclear test.

I remember when I was a child the army would give us chocolates and candies. When we came out of the shelter after three days, the army distributed rainwater from cisterns. Was it safe to drink? I wonder. After each test, each inhabitant received 1,500 francs pacifiques (about 12 euros) and jugs of wine. We were paid after each atmospheric bomb test. Why?

I witnessed helicopters flying over my island, gathering particle samples from the radioactive clouds. I saw yellow clouds passing over the lagoon of my island. I also witnessed dumping on the reef of toxic chemicals from the weather balloons that were employed during the bomb tests. This made the fish toxic and inedible.

Today we want to know what arrangements have been made by the French authorities for the people of Tureia in case of the collapse of the Moruroa atoll and subsequent release of radioactive substances. Have we been told the truth about the consequences of nuclear testing on our people? Can they tell us why we have these diseases? We are concerned about the health of our children and our families.

We demand that our people receive a thorough medical investigation and that proper radio-biological testing be done on the people who were most exposed to radiation.
We demand compensation for all the damage done to our island by the CEP, for all harm inflicted on us.

We are aware today, thanks to the organization Moruroa e Tatou, that the health effects we suffer from today are to a large part due to the French nuclear tests.

We have asked (and many times demanded) that the military authorities come and dismantle the two atomic shelters, veritable eyesores on our land, which, I might add, for some reason are not listed as anyone’s property in the government land registry (cadaster). We want to remember that Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls are officially part of our Tureia district, and for this reason the French authorities are obliged to restore those islands, so damaged as they are after thirty years of nuclear tests there.

Friends in Japan, we need your support and solidarity, you who suffered the American atomic bombings here in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You were, and continue to be, the first victims of the atomic era. We are leading the same fight—to shine a light on the consequences of nuclear testing, on the health effects from them, and on the compensation that is owed. This is what I came here to say for the people of Tureia, the people who, being the ones closest to the birthplace of the French weapon of destruction, were its first victims.

Never again on our homeland. Thank you for listening to me today.

Vacations, Evacuations and Voter Abstention in the High-Yield Nuclear Tests in the Summer of 1968: Headline from the leading daily newspaper of Tahiti, Les Nouvelles, July 12, 1968

Territorial Assembly Feared a Mysterious Evacuation of the 46 Inhabitants of Tureia, but Tureia was on vacation in Tahiti. The assembly also asked, not as a joke, if the total destruction of Fangataufa was part of the plan.

During the series of tests in 1968 described as strong yield, military authorities removed the population of Tureia (46 inhabitants). This displacement would have gone unnoticed if national elections had not been scheduled for this time. The ballot box from Tureia came back empty, and in Tahiti journalists were surprised to discover this complete lack of voter participation on Tureia. They discovered that the entire population of the atoll was in Tahiti on a military base. The governor of the time claimed to have invited everyone from Tureia to participate in the traditional July holidays [Bastille Day, July 14, etc.] in Papeete.
- from Les Irradiés de la République, 203

French Nuclear Tests from the Summer of 1968
Nuclear Test Name
115 kt
450 kt
150 kt
Canopus (1st thermonuclear)
2.6 Mt
Procyon (2nd thermonuclear)
1.3 Mt
Kt=kiloton, Mt=megaton (1,000 Kt)

Front page of the leading daily newspaper of Tahiti, Les Nouvelles, July 12, 1968


[i] Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Random House, 1973), Part 2, Chapter 11.

[ii] Bruno Barrillot, Les Irradiés de la République (Editions Complex, 2003), 204-206.

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