Nuclear Tests in French Polynesia:
Could Hazards Arise?

Radiation Exposure and Human Health

The Legacy of Nuclear Testing

Testing at Mururoa and Fangataufa Atolls

A Request for Independent Evaluation

Conduct of the Study

Scientific Findings

    1. several kilograms of plutonium resulting from four early atmospheric tests remain in the lagoon sediments of each atoll;

    2. leakage from some underground test cavities has resulted in tritium concentrations in both lagoons which are some ten times higher than in the open ocean;

    3. particles containing plutonium remain in a small, low-lying area in the islets of Colette, Ariel and Vesta at Mururoa Atoll where the five atmospheric “safety trials” were conducted; and

    4. higher levels of caesium-137, than are found elsewhere on the atolls were found in small patches covering several hectares in the Kilo-Empereur region on the north-eastern rim of Fangataufa, windward of a site where a surface level test was conducted in 1966.

Potential Radiation Doses

Implications for Human Health

Impacts on Native Plants and Animals

IAC Conclusions and Recommendations

Table 1
(mSv per year)
Global natural background doses  
  Typical range 1-10
  Maximum ~100
  Average 2.4
Mururoa and Fangataufa natural background dose 1.4 - 3
Current additional doses from remaining residual radioactive material at Mururoa and Fangataufa  
  Maximum at Tureia < 0.0001
  Average at Mururoa and Fangataufa < 0.01
  Maximum at Kilo-Empereur region in Fangataufa ~ 0.25
Maximum additional dose at Tureia following a rock slide at Mururoa 0.007
(initial year)
IAEA recommended guidelines for remediation 10

The membership of the IAC is as follows: Chairman - Ms. E. Gail de Planque, former Commissioner of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Mr. D. Beninson, former Chairman of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), Chairman of Argentina's Regulatory National Authority; Mr. R. Clarke, present Chairman of ICRP, Director of the United Kingdom's National Radiological Protection Board; Ms. Helen Garnett, Executive Director of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation; Mr. G.E.G. Holm, Associate Professor, Lund University Hospital, Sweden; Mr. H.S. Karyono, Director, Nuclear Minerals Development Center, Indonesian National Atomic Energy Agency; Mr. A. Kaul, President of Germany's Bundesamt für Strahlenschutz (Federal Office for Radiation Protection); Mr. A. Matuchenko, member of the Russian Federation's Commission on Radiation Protection; Mr. T. Numakunai, Director General of Japan's Institute of Radiation Measurements; Mr. A. Poletti, Department of Physics, University of Auckland, New Zealand; and the following ex officio experts selected by relevant intergovernmental bodies - Mr. G. Fraser, Head of the Sector of Radiation Protection in the European Commission's Directorate General for the Environment, Nuclear Safety and Civil Protection (selected by the European Commission); Mr. V.A. Fuavao, Director of the South Pacific Environment Programme (selected by the South Pacific Forum); Mr. B. Bennett, Director of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR); Mr. W. Kreisel, Executive Director for Health and Environment of the World Health Organization (WHO), selected by WHO.

Radiological Situations Caused by Nuclear Weapon Testing: IAEA Response

Over 2000 nuclear weapon explosions have been carried out around the world since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. About 20% of the nuclear weapons were tested in the atmosphere and - since the adoption of the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water (Moscow, 5 August 1963) - the remainder have been carried out underground. Nuclear weapon testing has left a legacy of residual radioactive materials which have a variable degree of significance for human health and the environment.

Three IAEA Member States have requested the IAEA to assess the radiological situation created by nuclear weapon testing in territories under their control. In 1993, the government of Kazakhstan requested the IAEA to perform a preliminary study of the radiological situation at the test site in Semipalatinsk. In 1994, the government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands requested an assessment of the radiological conditions at Bikini Atoll and the prospects for resettlement of the Bikinian population in Bikini Island. In 1995, the government of France requested that the radiological situation at the atolls of Mururoa and Fangataufa in French Polynesia be studied. The IAEA statutory functions include the establishment of international standards of safety for the protection of health against radiation exposure and provide for the application of those standards of safety for the protection of health against radiation exposure and provide for the application of those standards at the request of a State. In discharging these functions, the IAEA met the aforementioned requests; the results are currently being published in the IAEA Radiological Assessment Report Series.

The following table provides a simplified summary of the madimym annual radiation dose that hypothetical individuals would expect to receive at the studied test sites, should they be inhabited. It should be noted, however, that unqualified comparisons of the results of these studies can be misleading due to different characteristics of the tests and of the sites where they took place and due to variations in the hypothesis used. For reference purposes, levels of exposure to natural background radiation around the world are also shown.

In September 1995, the IAEA General Conference adopted a Resolution calling all States concerned “to fulfil their responsibilities to ensure that sites where nuclear tests have been conducted are monitored scrupulously and to take appropriate asteps to avoid adverse impacts on health, safety and the environment of such nuclear testing”.


  1. A total of 36 radionuclides produced by nuclear explosions were investigated by the Study. Most of these, however, are short-lived and/or do not carry a potential of risk for the environment or human health.
  2. Nuclear explosions conducted underground generate intense heat and high pressures. The immediate surrounding rock is melted and vaporised and then cools and condenses to form a lava in the explosion cavity. Within some hours, the cavity roof collapses, forming a cylindrical cavity about 5 times as high as its radius, filled with broken rock. At the atolls, where the surrounding rock is saturated with sea water, the cavity eventually fills with water. The radioactive products are initially contained within this cavern and some of them will dissolve in the water.
  3. The underground nuclear tests were conducted in the volcanic rock at a depth of 500 to 1100 metres. The 10 underground safety trials were all conducted at Mururoa, 7 of which were in the carbonate rock at depths below 280 metres.
  4. The levels of the two major long-lived radionuclides, caesium-137 and strontium-90, deposited on the earth’s surface attributable to the French atmospheric tests in the period 1966 to 1974 represent 13 percent of the total deposition of these radionuclides in the latitude of the two atolls. The remainder comes from fallout of these radionuclides from atmospheric tests performed, mostly in the northern hemisphere, by other nuclear weapon states.
  5. An independent survey of radionuclide concentrations in water taken from two underground cavities found that the concentrations of plutonium-239 are extremely low, confirming the high level of retention of this radionuclide in the glassy lava formed by the explosion.

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