Hidden History: French Nuclear Testing in the Pacific

They Went to Stop the Bomb

Francois Reinhardt (2017)

Film Review

This documentary concerns a 1973 protest voyage from New Zealand to the Pacific atoll Mururoa. The aim was to prevent the French from continuing their atmospheric nuclear tests there. The tests, begun in 1966, contaminated the drinking water and crops of the Tureia 50 kilometers (0.62 miles) away. Large numbers of Tureia residents developed leukemia, thyroid and other cancers and experiences miscarriages and birth defects. Strontium 90 from the Pacific testing was detected as far away as Peru, Africa and New Zealand.

The films begins by exploring the birth of antinuclear movement in France and Tahiti (the military base for Pacific nuclear testing). Without approval from the French parliament, the tests (46 between 1966-74) were technically illegal. Although de Gaulle’s government publicly denied the tests were harmful to human health, defense documents declassified in 2013 revealed they were secretly monitoring the blood of Tureia residents forĀ  radionucleotides and corresponding health problems.

The French government also engaged in “psych-ops” against Tahitian activists opposed to the testing. In addition to using the French and Tahitian media, they also framed and and imprisoned the former Tahitian president on false corruption charges.

The protest flotilla was led by the Fri, which means freedom in Danish. It was crewed by 13 antinuclear activists from the US, France, the Netherlands, Britain and New Zealand.

The Fri never reached Mururoa because the French Navy illegally boarded the vessel in international waters, arresting the activists and imprisoning them in Tahiti. In a symbolic act In a symbolic act of support, the New Zealand government send its Navy frigate HMNZS Otago into the test zone area. The latter broke the news of the activists’ arrest to the world press.

Beginning in 1977, Greenpeace undertook similar protest voyages to French Polynesia in the Rainbow Warrior. In 1985, French spies planted explosives on the Greenpeace vessel in Auckland Harbor and sunk it (see French Spy Who Helped Bomb Rainbow Warrior Tracked Down 32 Years Later). Although the French temporarily halted subsequent nuclear testing, they provoked international outrage in 1995 with another series of atmospheric tests.*

Residents of Tureia (interviewed in the film) are still waiting for their radiation-related health problems to be acknowledged and addressed by the French government.


*The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which bans atmospheric nuclear testing, was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1996. Technically it has not entered into force, as eight countries refuse to ratify it (US, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel and Iran).

Although the film can’t be embedded, it can be viewed free at the Maori TV website: They Went to Stop the Bomb