In this blog to mark the 55th anniversary of the first atmospheric test on the island of Moruroa (Mururoa), we speak to Auckland War Memorial Museum Cultural Advisor Ena Manuireva about the effect of the nuclear testing on his family, his community, and what still isn’t known about the lasting impacts. 

Could you describe what comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Moruroa’?  

As you grow up, you realise Moruroa was always a military zone, it always had a connotation of the military. I was born in ‘67 and we knew already when I was a kid growing up that Moruroa was the base for the nuclear tests. So, when it comes to how I view Moruroa now, I think it's the epitome of what nuclear weaponry was, if you want, what it achieved thanks to Moruroa and Fangataufa.  

But the most important for me is that it reminds me of the book Dark Sun, the picture on the cover is one of the Moruroa in 1970, I think. That epitomises Moruroa and the weaponry for me.  

It's just a desolate place. If you look at photos it looks like one of the Chernobyl aftermaths. Nothing grows there. Now it's a no-go zone. It's a top-secret defence area, nobody can go there apart from the military. 

I know that when we were kids, we were told it was M-O-R-U instead of M-U-R-U for “secret”, and roa means “deep”, so “deep secret".

What age did you become aware of the damage inflicted by France on the people of French Polynesia?  

I was maybe 7 or 8 when I realised that it had touched us as a family – especially my sister. She was born in November ‘66, and I was born in December ‘67.  

I became more interested and active in this anti-nuclear struggle, and I became aware that my mum, who had been working in Mangareva, had been pretty sick when she was pregnant with my sister. At one point the fish, which had always been good enough to be eaten, all of sudden were poisonous and contaminated. She told us that she would bleed from the lips, because of the radioactivity. She said that when one of my sisters was born, her bones weren't strong enough, so she couldn't stand up. It took her a long time - she started walking when she was three-and-a-half and couldn’t keep food down. My mum and my parents were quite worried, and that was the main reason why we had to leave Mangareva. If that didn't happen, we wouldn't have left. We would have stayed. My dad was working there as a farmer and my mum worked at the school.  

In ‘66, when the very first bomb happened, we were told that something would happen, “but it's nothing”. A big explosion will happen, there'll be a big fireball, “but it's fine”. We were told the date was supposed to be the 1st or the 2nd of July.  

But for the first one, people weren't told to stay at home or not to drink the water. The programme was running for 30 years – we were in the middle of it. We knew what was happening, we knew that Moruroa and Fangataufa were the main atolls where all this was happening.  
 

What are some of the impacts of the testing on your family? 

I know that I lost a lot of cousins who were born at the same time as me – in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They should have grown up at the same time as me because we were kids together in Mangareva. But they died early, in their 30s or 40s – to me it's quite telling of the situation.  

When you go to Mangareva, where I come from, there are young people in their 40s, and all of a sudden you jump to the 60s and 70s, and in the middle, there are not that many people. There's a gap of that age: 50 to 60. We lost them because they haven't grown, they haven't had children, they haven't had their whole lives lived.  

Another one  of the signs is that if you go to Mangareva, and you go to the cemetery, there are a lot of small tombs, and they are from children that were born stillborn, or died after they were born because they had deformities. So that's the kind of thing that if you look at it and say, there's an effect on society because there aren't enough people in that gap. I go to Mangareva every one or two years, and you still notice this gap. You don't hear of people dying of natural causes, of old age. The normality of dying of old age doesn't really exist in Mangareva. Life has been taken over by the impact of the nuclear testing. 
 

The damage to the environment is well-documented. What do you think are some of the less-quantifiable impacts of these operations?  

I think the main thing is the irreversible effect of the nuclear testing. It takes 24,000 years to get rid of the plutonium. So that's what people are saying: what can we do? We can't do anything.  

When the French started trying to promote this new kind of nuclear testing for glory and history, they told us we would be on the front page on the newspaper in France. The mayor of Mangareva at the time was a famer, like my dad was a farmer. He was told to start planting more vegetables, more fruit on our land, because there was something like 15,000 military personnel at that point on and around Moruroa. And when they came to Mangareva, there were three military to one Mangarevan. So they urged the population to grow more food, by planting whatever there was.  

But what they didn't tell us was that there's no point, because the soil was contaminated. In the end it was just us that was growing that for our own consumption because the military knew they couldn't eat it. They were told, but we were never told. We had to consume the food and it was contaminated and people died because of that. The French have been very cowardly in their approach to the local population, not telling the truth or outright lying.  

We were told it would all be fine because the wind would blow the contamination away, but if they'd asked the population – or at least the farmers or the fishermen – they would have known that the wind always blows to the West, especially in certain seasons. So that kind of arrogance - they didn't want to listen to us. 

I am worried about the environment, because it's all still there. I'm not sure what the situation of the soil is in Mangareva, but there are a lot of people growing  vegetables and I don't know if it's good for consumption. You can't have fresh fruit because the long journey from Tahiti, like my uncle used to do, takes a week or two. It takes too long.  
 

What are some of the effects on the social structure of Mangareva? 

Firstly, that there’s a whole missing generation. 

Also, people have decided to work with the military. At one point we had the highest GDP in the whole of the Pacific, even higher than Nauru, with their phosphate. We are the biggest producer of black pearls in Mangareva, because of the ocean currents, and obviously Tahiti sells pearls all over the world. But it has changed dramatically the way people work. So I think 80% are in production of pearls, and the rest are civil servants. They work at the post office, at the town hall, the mayor, they work at school. But you won’t find a mechanic over there, you won't find an electrician, you won't find a joiner. It reduces the jobs that there should be on the island. The range and nature of the jobs have changed. Everyone works for the administration - that's it, there's no other thing. Farming isn't there anymore. There's only one person there and he is very old - he's one of the oldest people left.  
 

Why do you think it’s important that future generations know about what happened at Moruroa? How do you see the future unfolding in the wake of nuclear waste and containment issues in Moruroa and Fangataufa? 

I think that's the biggest fear - not just for me but for the whole of French Polynesia: we don't know. In terms of the nuclear waste, we know that they invested a lot of money to monitor what's going on underneath Fangataufa and Moruroa. 

At that stage we know that the coral is slowly, very slowly breaking down because of the underground nuclear tests, there's no other reason. And people are panicking – apart from the French because they're not there. But the local population is quite worried that it will leak, it will leak all those things back into the lagoon. 

They also didn't bury the waste deep enough. It should have been between 1 to 1.2km, but they buried it at 800 metres. So the problem of this unstable waste - plutonium - because they're all atolls, if the coral collapses, there will be a tsunami, that's for sure. And in the whole atoll, there are no mountains. People have houses on stilts but that won't be enough. Or they can climb the trees, but that won't be enough. They haven't built enough protection for the population. I know some of the islands have only got 70 people or 110. But those are still people.  

They might have to go to Tahiti, which is another migration, not due to nuclear tests but due to the aftermath of nuclear tests. So it's still that same problem and that's the kind of thing that we've been thinking of: what if there is a leak? What is going to happen if there is a tsunami? Mangareva is the furthest away, but it will come to us. Luckily, we have mountains, but people prefer to live by the coast. They have their lives there. My family's house is by the beach. It will come to us, that's for sure. Just like the wind blew over the radioactive clouds. 

It's a very big problem for us; maybe they should attempt try to shift this plutonium somewhere else – to France, maybe to Paris.  

The kids don't know anything about it because the French made sure they got rid of all the signs. They built at least three big shelters, and obviously if you were French, your shelter was made of 60cm-deep concrete walls. And if you were local, you'd be in your depot with corrugated iron on top, and the air can come in through the rafters. You could close the door but during the nuclear test, we knew that the air would come in. It wasn't  sealed. It's ridiculous how they treat some people as subjects and other people as citizens. 

You know, sometimes I ask myself: how can you normalise the fact that a bigger power came into your backyard, did all this stupidity, and left everything there. Buried it. And then off they go. It's just unbelievable that the English have done it, the Americans have, and the French. In the race to be a nuclear power, they caused so much damage. 


Map from Testimonies : witnesses of French nuclear testing in the South Pacific. Auckland War Memorial Musuem. HD9744.N833.F72 TES. More information ›

Ena Manuireva was born in Mangareva (Gambier islands) in Ma’ohi Nui (French colonised Polynesia), but his family left the island due to the ill health of his sister in the times of atmospheric testing by the French. He is also a campaigner for nuclear reparations justice from France over the 193 tests staged in Polynesia over three decades. Ena is currently living in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and is working to hold the French accountable for their nuclear tests, while also completing his PhD thesis and working with a range of civil society groups and museums to highlight the antinuclear movements of the Pacific. He is a language revitalisation researcher at Auckland University of Technology.

You can read more from Ena at the Asia Pacific Report here