ICE Case Studies

See all the ICE Cases
Deploy the ICE Search and Sort Tool (SST)
Go To ICE Expert Site

Case Number: 4

Case Identifier: MURUROA

Case Name: French Nuclear Tests in South Pacific

By: Tish Falco



1. Abstract

On June 13, 1995, French President Jacques Chirac announced that he would break a three-year moratorium and resume nuclear testing in French Polynesia. France planned to conduct eight underground tests in the South Pacific or French Polynesia, particularly in Mururoa Atoll. The underground tests caused geographical degradation to the atoll as well as imposing potential health risks to the inhabitants of the South Pacific. Furthermore, France's actions jeopardized international security agreements concerning the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty which all countries were expected to sign by May 1996. The coalescing of the environmental and political issues resulted in several South Pacific and international protests. French products were boycotted and peace protests evolved to symbolize condemnation of France's actions. Greenpeace was involved adamantly in expressing discontent with the French government. Consequently, France stopped nuclear testing on February 22, 1996, three months short of the expected testing intervals, therefore, only six of the eight tests were completed due to international political pressure.

2. Description

The French colony of Mururoa Atoll is located in the southeast corner of the Taumotu archipelago in French Polynesia. France began atmospheric nuclear testing in the colony in 1966 because Algeria had ceased being a nuclear test site option when the Algeria gained independence in 1962. Since 1974, France has conducted underground tests due to guidelines of the Non-Prolifer- ation Treaty (NPT).(1) There have been 41 atmospheric tests and 138 underground tests from 1966 to 1992.(2) Former French president, Francois Mitterand, ceased nuclear testing in 1992 due to NPT obligations. To international disbelief, Jacques Chirac announced in June 1995 that France would lift the three year moratorium and resume underground nuclear tests in the South Pacific. Despite the end of the Cold War and decreased security tensions, France conducted eight tests between September 1995 and May 1996. Six of the eight tests were completed on the following dates: Sept. 5, 1993; Oct. 1, 1995; Oct. 27, 1995;  Nov. 22, 1995; Dec.27, 1995 and  Jan. 27, 1996.(3)(4)

France justified the tests as models to help create computer simulations that would eradicate future testing. The results of France resuming nuclear testing have environmental and political implications. The intersection of political and environmental issues produces cultural, social, and economic results that are seen through peace protests, independence movements, and trade boycotts.

A. Environmental Issues

The exact effects of the French nuclear tests will not be known for years. The French government is very secretive about releasing information about environmental hazards associated with nuclear testing. There is lack of statistical research to assess the risks to the people in the South Pacific. Due to pressure from the European Union and the scientific community, France has conducted several tests to assess the health and environmental risks associated with the nuclear tests. Working with the French government, Jacques Cousteau and his team explored damage to the Mururoa atoll for six days in June 1987. Cousteau, however, had limited time, resources, and access.(5) In February of 1996, France invited the United Nations organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to officially release all nuclear security data. This is a non-governmental scientific study where the results have yet to be seen. In 1994, the IAEA set a resolution for all states to fulfill their international responsibilities to ensure that nuclear testing sites have no detrimental health or environmental impacts.

France's nuclear testing in the South Pacific, especially in Mururoa, has inflicted long-term environmental damage to the geographical structuring of the atoll. Radiation has seeped into the fissures of the atoll. A French map from 1980 shows that years of nuclear testing have cracked the atoll.(6) Several scientists have concluded that previous nuclear testing caused fissuring in by destroying the coral and the altering land plates. Dr. Murray Matthews from the National Radiation Lab in New Zealand discusses the spread of radioactive material from wind storms and rains.(7) Pierre Vincent, a vulcanologist, stated "that further tests could rupture the rock and release radionuclides from underground cavities."(8) The long-term effects increase the risk of landslides and tsunami, seismic tidal waves. Future shocks from underground explosions could induce a tsunami that could submerge all of Polynesia. Radioactive leaks also increase the risks to aquatic life in the surrounding area.

The nuclear tests increase the potential risks to humans and aquatic life. The French government insists that the intense heat from the blasts vitrifies the rock and traps all radioactivity before it can escape, but when there are leaks, the amount of radioactive elements (cesium, tritium, and iodine) vanish quickly before inflicting harm on the environment.(10) Excessive amounts of iodine 131, however, can cause thyroid disease and cancer. Tests conducted on survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki show that amounts registered at 500 miliSievert (mS) can cause cancer and birth defects. It is not clear, however, how much the islanders at French Polynesia have been exposed. Labs from New Zealand and Australia estimate that they have received about one mS.(11) Furthermore, little plutonium from past tests gets into the food chain because it can inflict harm on human and aquatic life in the future.

B. Political Issues

There are also political implications involved with the French nuclear testing. It is a political status symbol for France to possess nuclear capabilities as well as a symbol of colonialism. The nuclear testing is in "complete contradiction to France as the cradle of democracy and human rights."(12) French Polynesia is economically dependent on France, therefore, helpless in resisting nuclear tests. The French government has lost a considerable amount of political legitimacy in the colonies and at the international level. For example, France was nearly brought before the European Court of Justice for possible violation of the 1957 Euratom Treaty. Under the treaty, France is obligated to provide data to the European Commission to ensure that safety guidelines are met. In July 1995, France gave information, but has refused to provide further information in October, 1995. A case was not established because France halted tests in February 1996. France's decision to resume testing also jeopardizes international cooperation to establish a nuclear weapons-free world. Chirac's decision undermines Frances' commitment to the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in May 1996. Chirac notes that a "country that wants to live in security should not lower its a very uncertain world."(13) Others disagree. Frances's actions "remind us of the threats and horrors that haunted the collective imagination during the Cold War years" as stated by Brazil's Foreign Minister Luiz Felipe Lampreia on September 25, 1995.(14)

C. The Intersection: Cultural, Social, and Economic issues
In 1985, French commandos blew up the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior that had mounted nuclear protests on the sea. Again, on September 1, the French navy seized the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior II and MV Greenpeace after the vessel had crossed the 12-mile exclusion zone that the French had declared around the Mururoa test site. Greenpeace is suing the French government for violation of civil rights and kidnapping and monetary reparations.(15) In addition, several Polynesia citizens have filed suits against the French government for violation of human rights.(16) The National Union of Scientists publicly condemned the French government and circulated petitions demanding that the tests not be resumed.(17)

Anti-nuclear protests occurred around the world. In Vancouver, nine protesters chained themselves to the French consulate. In Ottawa, demonstrators established the Cafe Bombe, outside the French Embassy, a mock restaurant serving bomb-shaped cakes with sparklers. On Bastille Day, July 14, protesters in New Zealand dumped manure outside the French ambassador's residence, French Polynesians burned a French flag at a rally in Sydney, and protesters held a candlelight vigil in Fiji.(18) At the beginning of the nuclear testing in September, riots and protest occurred in Tahiti, the capital of French Polynesia. Marchers wore T-shirts and banners demanding independence in light of the nuclear testing.

Economic boycotts have symbolized international discontent with France's actions. Trade boycotts are most prominent in New Zealand, Australia, and Japan. Restaurants around the world have boycotted French products. For example, Beaujolais wine is a food product that has been particularly targeted. DeBoeuf Beaujolais had 44,000 cases valued as $270,000 canceled.(19) In 1995, tourism declined by 8% or by 15,000 fewer tourists while Club Med's resorts lost $1 million in profits.(20) The French air craft manufacturer Dassault lost a contract worth $370 million because they were banned from bidding in Australia. New Zealand also has suspended a contract pertaining to French surface-to-air missiles.(21)

3. Duration: COMPLETE (1966-96)

The tests were officially stopped in February 1996 and international condemnations ended when France signed the NPT on May 1, 1996

The time frame of French nuclear testing in the South Pacific has lasted periodically about 28 years. France began nuclear testing in Mururoa Atoll in 1966. These tests were atmospheric until 1974 when they were underground because of the NPT. Former French president, Francois Mitterand ceased testing in 1992 due to international non-proliferation obligations. On September 1995, under President Jacques Chirac, France resumed and extended nuclear testing in French Polynesia. Six of the eight tests were completed up until February 1996. France continued to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in May 1996.

4. Location

Continent: Pacific

Region: Southeast Pacific

Country: France

5. Actors: France, New Zealand, Vanatu

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem: RADIOACTIVE

The ocean and the land of Mururoa Atoll have been directly affected by the above-ground and underground nuclear testing throughout the years. Surrounding islands and countries such as New Zealand, Australia,and Japan have also been exposed to radioactivity indirectly. The amount, however, is minimal and the results of significant damage to humans and aquatic life are inconclusive. There is coral damage from the impact nuclear explosions and possible damage to the plankton and fish in the sea. Furthermore, the radioactive fallout contaminates the coral and plankton, the air when it rains, and the sea through radioactive leaks.

7. Type of Habitat: OCEAN

8. Act and Harm Sites:

Act Site       Harm Site           Example

Mururoa        South West Pacific  Drifting radiation

 III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: WARHARM

10. Level of Conflict: Interstate

The conflict is mainly between France and French Polynesia, especially Mururoa Atoll. There is further conflict at the international level particularly with the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan. There is low conflict concerning the degradation of Mururoa Atoll and the fragile ecological system that exists in the South Pacific. There is a minimal threat to human health from the radioactive elements from the tests. There is, however, current and potential damage to the geographical features of the atoll from the nuclear explosions. Future explosions could deepen the coral fissures and create tsunami that could drown the island. Furthermore, fallout from the explosions carried by Pacific winds and rain could contaminate surrounding islands. The radioactive elements from the explosions have already inflicted physical damage on the islands. The nuclear tests also increase the amounts of radioactivity and the chances for leaks that could affect the aquatic and land environments. The future will be the predictor of damage caused by the nuclear explosions. The risk to wildlife is relatively high. The Sydney Morning Herald has reported that fish near Mururoa have died after their eyes popped out and their internal organs were forced out of their mouths and anuses.

11. Fatality Level of Dispute: 0

III. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: INDIRECT

Causal Diagram

13. Level of Strategic Interest: REGION

14. Outcome of Dispute: YIELD

IV. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE and TED Cases

TED Cases


ICE Cases


16. Relevant Websites and Literature


Declan, Butler. "France asked to supply more data on N-test monitoring." Nature12 October 1995.

Carr, Kimberly. "French physicists attack bomb tests." Nature 29 June 1995.

Drozdiak, William. "French Nuclear Test Caused Leak of Radioactive Material." Washington Post 24 January 1996.

"France Defends Nuclear Test." The Associated Press

Fulton, E. Kaye. "Anti-Nuclear passions." Maclean's 24 July 1995.

Howard, Sean, ed. Nuclear Proliferation News 12 October 1995.

"International Parliamentarians Protest Nuclear Testing at Mururoa." Greenpeace Tahiti. Greenpeace Communications.

"Mururoa and Fangataufa Test Site Study." Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Australia. 5 March 1996.

"Planned French nuclear tests under fire." Associated Press, 1995.

Revkin, Andrew C. "Plutonium In Paradise." Discover May 1989.

Ridgeway, James. "Mururoa Mon Amour." Village Voice 26 September 1995.

Suter, Keith. "South Pacific Anger Over French Nuclear Testing." Contemporary Review February 1996.

Tastemain, Catherine. "Brussels enters debate over effects of nuclear tests on environment." Nature 24 August 1995.

"Volcanologist says France's N-test site is unstable." ENN Daily News 17 October 1995.


"Mururoa: How Safe are the French tests?" ABC News Program.


1. Suter, Keith. "South Pacific Anger Over French Nuclear Testing." Contemporary Review February 1996: 57-62.

2. Tastemain, Sally. "Brussels enters debate over effects of nuclear tests on environmentNature 24 August 1995: 625.

3. Howard, Sean, ed. Nuclear Proliferation News 12 October 1995.

4. See TED Case Study, Mururoa: Description.

5. Revkin, Andrew C. "Plutonium In Paradise." Discover May 1989.

6. "France Defends Nuclear Tests." Associated Press.

7. Tastemain, Catherine: 625.

8. Ibid: 625.

9. "Volcanologist says France's N-test site is unstable." ENN Daily News17 October 1995.

10. Drozdiak, William. "French Nuclear Test Caused Leak of Radioactive Material." Washington Post 24 January 1996.
11. "Mururoa: How Safe are French tests?" ABC News Program.

12. "International Parliamentarians Protest Nuclear Testing at Mururoa."

Greenpeace Tahiti. Greenpeace Communications.

13. "Planned French nuclear tests under fire." Associated Press 1995.

14. Howard, Sean, ed.

15. Ridgeway, James. "Mururoa Mon Amour." Village Voice 26 September 1995: 23.

16. Ibid, 23.

17. Carr, Kimberly. "French physicists attack bomb tests." Nature 29 June 1995.

18. Fulton, E. Kaye. "Anti-nuclear passions." Maclean's 24 January 1995.

19. See TED Case Study, Mururoa: Type of Measures.

20. Ibid

21. Ibid. 

Go to All ICE Cases

Go to ICE Home Page

November, 1997