Between 1966 and 1996, the French government conducted 193 nuclear weapon tests in the islands of the South Pacific. These explosions profoundly altered the health, wellbeing, and environment of the people living in this region, who spent decades amid radioactive polluted air, water, and soil.
Using hundreds of declassified French government documents, on-the-ground interviews in France and in Polynesia, and countless hours of advanced computer simulations, a new book co-authored by a researcher at Princeton's Program on Science and Global Security (SGS) challenges the official public story of the human and environmental aftermath of French nuclear weapon testing in the South Pacific. Many of the documents, interviews, and simulations are on a dedicated new website in French and English that is being released with the book.
“Toxique,” released in French on March 10, was co-authored by Sebastien Philippe, associate research scholar with SGS, which is based at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs; and Tomas Statius, a journalist from the award-winning French investigative media Disclose. Also involved in the project is Interprt, a collective of spatial designers focusing on environmental justice issues who designed the associated online platform.
The book is the result of a two-year exploration of the consequences of this nuclear testing and the continued struggle of local communities and veterans to seek justice and compensation. It finds that the total population exposed above the threshold necessary for compensation could be 10 times more than is currently believed based on existing government studies. It also shows how French veterans were exposed to radiation during the tests, from the maintenance of contaminated equipment, and during the attempted clean-up of the atolls.
In this episode of Endnotes, Philippe describes what motivated him to pursue this investigative project, and how he hopes the results will help the people of the South Pacific.
Before joining Princeton, Philippe was a nuclear weapon systems safety engineer in the French Ministry of Defense. He has a Ph.D. in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from Princeton, and his research focuses on technical and policy analysis to assess, manage, and reduce the risks associated with nuclear weapons and emerging technologies to international peace and security. He also looks at the reconstruction of past nuclear weapon activities.