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The Contemporary Pacific 17.2 (2005) 359-362

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A Comment on "The Nuclear Issue in the South Pacific"

For fifty years, from 1946 to the last French test in 1996, nuclear bombs exploded in pristine Pacific environments, in the atmosphere, underwater, and even in space, leaving behind radioactive contamination of islands, reefs, and sea, and stimulating powerful anti-nuclear sentiment in the region. Observers of the South Pacific scene should be pleased to have a French perspective on the history of this issue.

As Regnault rightly points out, France's decision to begin nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1960s,could only be met by a hostile reaction. After all, the threat of nuclear contamination from atmospheric testing and fallout had been recognized by the nuclear powers of the time, so much so that the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom agreed not to test in the atmosphere, underwater, or in space as early as 1963, leaving underground as the sole environment where testing was permitted. Yet Paris was to begin testing three years later in the very environment now considered too dangerous for human populations by Washington, Moscow, and London—the atmosphere. And that atmosphere, in terms of local fallout, was in the South Pacific. In terms of global fallout, it was in the Southern Hemisphere, and protests were indeed to come from South American as well as South Pacific countries.

The people of the South Pacific wanted to know why, if French testing was as safe as France claimed, it could not be conducted in mainland France rather than in French territories, as far away from Europe as possible. No satisfactory answer to that question ever came: If there were to be risks to human populations, the French authorities wanted those populations to be small, far away, and unable to mount effective political opposition. That is why anti-nuclear activists in the South Pacific saw the problem as colonial, a word that Regnault places in quotation marks as if [End Page 359] to indicate its inappropriateness. Yet who can doubt that an independent French Polynesia, a Maohi state, would have refused to allow its islands to be used for nuclear experimentation? The great advantage of French Polynesia as a location for nuclear testing was precisely its complete political subordination to the French state, and the futility, therefore, of anti-nuclear protests of the kind that occurred in Tahiti in 1973, 1989, and 1995.

On the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone ( SPNFZ ) Treaty, Regnault correctly points to the political advantages of anti-nuclearism for the Labour prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand. Both Bob Hawke and David Lange were dismantling regulated economies in ways that alienated their traditional working-class supporters, and they needed a radical foreign policy issue to enhance their left-wing credentials. And it is true, too, that the treaty was particularly designed to oppose French testing while sidestepping the issue of US nuclear-related activities in the South Pacific.

The Australian authorities showed little concern, as Regnault says, for the Aboriginal peoples whose traditional country and walking tracks lay in the test zones in Western Australia and South Australia. Here the colonial connection was more one of mindset than legal status. Australia's prime minister in the 1950s, Sir Robert Menzies, was proud to describe himself as "British to the bootheels" and to regard the British request to test nuclear weapons on the Australian continent as an honor bestowed on the Australian people. By the time another Australian government had conducted a Royal Commission of Inquiry into British testing decades later, the public mood had shifted considerably toward anti-nuclearism and Australian national independence. As for the United States, its tests created the greatest documented damage to the environment and to people in the whole history of nuclear testing in the Pacific.

On just this issue of documentation, however, Regnault has little to say. Why do we know so much about the deleterious effects of the fallout from the US Bravo test on1 March 1954, or the...