Three men campaigned for decades to raise awareness of the health and environmental consequences of France’s nuclear testing program in the Pacific
By Nic Mclellan
But the deaths of John Doom, Bruno Barrillot and Roland Oldham mean others must pick up their work, to support the thousands of Maohi workers who staffed the nuclear test sites.
Tanemaruata Michel Arakino was born on Reao, an island not far from Moruroa Atoll in the Pacific territory of French Polynesia. From the 1980s, Arakino worked for 17 years with the French military unit responsible for collecting biological samples at the French nuclear test site, to determine the spread of radioactive particles. Working as a scuba diver, he plunged into the lagoon at Moruroa Atoll to collect samples of water, seaweed and sediments, just hours after underground nuclear tests had been detonated deep in the atoll.
Arakino reported: “In my job, I was regularly in the so-called ‘hot spots’ to gather samples from the ground and the sea for biological testing on Moruroa and Fangataufa Atolls. It is likely that while diving to gather plankton above ground zero, I swallowed or breathed in radioactive particles. In no case did my senior officers inform me of the risks I might incur.”
Arakino later died of cancer. He was just one of thousands of workers who laboured in support of the French nuclear testing program, with Algerians and Pacific islanders often allocated the most dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs.
Thousands of Maohi (Polynesian) workers staffed the test sites during the thirty years of French nuclear testing in French Polynesia between 1966 and 1996. Five years after the last French test, the association Moruroa e Tatou (Moruroa and Us) took up their cause. John Taroanui Doom, Bruno Barrillot and Roland Oldham co-founded the association on 4 July 2001, eventually uniting a membership of thousands of former workers. They spent years challenging successive French governments and local Tahitian leaders who refused to address the health and environmental consequences of nuclear testing.
A former member of the trade union A Tia I Mua, Roland played a key role in the establishment of a breakaway, militant union confederation in 1992, the Confedération syndicale indépendante et démocratique (CSID). Both unions engaged in bold industrial actions, such as the 1993 general strike against a wage freeze and the 1994 general strike against new taxes proposed by the conservative Flosse government
His long commitment to workers’ rights was also expressed through his support for the thousands of Maohi workers who had laboured on the French military bases at Hao, Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls.
Trade unionist, political campaigner, blues guitarist with the band ‘Atomic Blues’ – he was a man of many parts and a true Pacific warrior. Roland was a driving force in the campaign for reparations for those workers who suffered adverse health effects, finally leading to the passage of France’s compensation law.
However, he later argued that the 2010 Morin legislation ignored a number of key concerns that have been central to Moruroa e Tatou’slobbying. In an interview, he noted: “The draft law covers workers and military personnel who staffed the test sites, but not the local indigenous communities on islands near Moruroa that received radioactive fallout. As well, the law makes no provision for ongoing clean-up of contamination at the test sites.”
Above all, the law contains a provision which states that there was “negligible risk” of radiation exposure, effectively reversing the burden of proof for Maohi workers. Over le last decade, few Maohi workers have been granted compensation, often struggling to find the official documents required to prove that their illnesses were caused by exposure to radiation in the course of their work at the test sites. Following the passage of the Morin law, Roland continued to lobby the French government and the government of French Polynesia to amend the legislation and remove this provision. He bluntly challenged every attempt to use the law as an excuse to avoid further action.
Alongside his work in French Polynesia, Roland was a crucial ally for other nuclear survivors around the region. In 2017, he travelled to the United Nations in New York alongside Fijian activist Vanessa Griffen and Aboriginal campaigner Karina Lester, to lobby governments who were negotiating the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). To great applause, Karina Lester presented a petition from indigenous groups around Oceania, calling for the treaty to address the health and environmental legacies of testing in the Pacific. The TPNW preamble now recognises “the disproportionate impact of nuclear weapon activities on indigenous peoples.”
Pacific government delegations lobbied hard for specific provisions to support nuclear survivors. This is now reflected in the final TPNW, which was adopted by a vote of 122-1 on 7 July 2017. The final treaty requires state parties to assist victims of nuclear weapons use and testing, as well as environmental remediation of contaminated areas.
After a long struggle with cancer, Roland died on 16 March 2019 in Tahiti, aged 68. In a final interview, he stated simply: “In spite of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, I’ve tried to learn from them. I think that in all I’ve done, I’ve tried to bring a bit of happiness to others.”