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Mururoa, Rongelap, & the Rainbow Warrior

In this step, we look at the human impact of nuclear testing in the Pacific, the protests that accompanied it, and the consequences for NZ.
An enormous fireball and mushroom cloud in golds and oranges is seen in the distance, casting light on the top of the cloudbank between the viewer and the explosion
© United States Department of Energy, Public Domain.

In this step we will look a little closer at what was going on in the Pacific to drive Aotearoa New Zealand’s protest, and the events leading up to the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior protest ship operated by Greenpeace; an international environmental organisation known for its campaigns for environmental protection.

Arms race

The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945 ended World War II but started the nuclear arms race.

From 1946 to 1996, France, the United States, and the United Kingdom used parts of Micronesia and Polynesia to test nuclear weapons. The small Pacific atolls and islands were overseas territories of these powers, and were chosen because they were far away … from them. Both atomic and hydrogen bombs were tested. However, the tests were not remote from the Pacific peoples who lived there, and the radioactive contamination their homelands received will endure for thousands of years.

Bombs in our backyard

The technology being fairly new at the time, the scale of the early blasts and the area of their nuclear fallout was sometimes underestimated. In such cases, the nuclear fallout spread to inhabited islands and atolls in the Pacific, causing significant and ongoing harm to those affected, including radiation sickness, cancers, and birth defects such as occurred with the infamous American Castle Bravo test at Bikini Atoll, the sixth largest in history, and 1,000 times larger than the bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The nearby islands affected by fallout from this test are still abandoned and contaminated today, as are their ecosystems, almost 70 years later.

You can see clips of the Castle Bravo explosion and its 11-km wide mushroom cloud here and here. The cloud contaminated air, ocean and islands more than 18,000 km2 from the blast’s centre.

Until 1958, Aotearoa New Zealand supported nuclear testing in the Pacific. It sent two frigates to observe and monitor British nuclear testing at Kiritimati (Christmas Island) and Malden Island (in what is now the Republic of Kiribati). This stance changed as more was learned about the risks of fallout and by 1959 it had broken with its allies to vote to condemn nuclear testing at the UN. In 1963, British, American and Soviet governments agreed to ban atmospheric tests. Other nations, including France, did not.

Mururoa Atoll

An aerial view over a Pacific atoll. It is vaguely triangular in shape, but the edges are wavy. The thin edge of land surrounding the lagoon is mostly sand coloured with small spots of green. Mururoa Atoll. NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mururoa, and its sister atoll Fangataufa in the Tuamotu Islands of French Polynesia became the focus of French nuclear testing in the Pacific. Between 1966 and 1995, at least 175 test bombs were detonated there, including 41 above-ground atmospheric tests (as opposed to underground or undersea tests where nuclear fallout is somewhat more contained). Fallout from the atmospheric tests was measured as far away as Aotearoa New Zealand and Peru.

It emerged in 2021 that 90% of inhabitants in the immediate region were exposed to radioactive fallout – roughly ten times more than the French government had officially estimated. Though this was French territory, declassified documents show that the French government consistently failed to warn the inhabitants of the region of radiation risks. Sébastien Philippe, an applied physicist at Princeton and lead author of the research said residents could have been warned days before the most harmful test but weren’t. The United States, Soviet Union and other countries were monitoring the testing too. According to Philippe:

“Everybody knew what was going on, except the Polynesians.”

Aotearoa New Zealand Protest

Both the Aotearoa New Zealand government and independent protest vessels attempted to intercede. The government made formal protests to France through diplomatic channels from 1963 to 1973, expressing concern for the safety of people in Aotearoa New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Niue, and Tokelau; all of which were experiencing measurable fallout. By 1963, the public anti-protest movement was already underway, with one organisation CNDNZ (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament NZ) submitting an 80,000 strong petition to begin talks for a nuclear-free zone in the South Pacific.
Looking down upon a 1972 protest march against French nuclear testing in the Pacific, from a balcony above Willis Street, Wellington. Shows demonstrators with banners reading: "Stop French tests now", "We don't pee in the Atlantic, so don't shit up our Pacific. Government stop them now!" and "Finger out over fallout". A sign in the foreground is painted with a peace symbol. A group of trolley buses are amongst the vehicles halted by the procession. Policemen are visible. Protest march against French nuclear testing in the Pacific, Willis Street, Wellington. Evening Post newspaper. Ref: 1/4-020364-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
In 1972–73 a flotilla of private vessels sailed to Mururoa from Aotearoa New Zealand to peacefully protest the French activity, putting themselves at risk of radiation. One – the Greenpeace vessel Vega – was rammed by a French ship, and it’s captain badly beaten. Other ships were seized amid passive resistance.
You can watch a short documentary, Mururoa 1973 (28 mins) filmed by members of this flotilla during their journey on NZOnScreen.
A year later, in 1973, Prime Minister Norman Kirk wrote to the French government that Pacific atmospheric nuclear testing was a “violation of New Zealand’s rights under international law”. France denied this assertion, prompting Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia to take the matter to the International Court of Justice. As we saw in the previous step, the French government ignored the ruling against them, stating that the Court “manifestly lacked jurisdiction”.
Aotearoa New Zealand was forced to undertake alternative means of protest, and sent two navy frigates, the HMNZS Otago and Canterbury, with a cabinet minister onboard to international waters just outside the test area. The Prime Minister told the crew they were to be part of an honourable mission, as a
”silent accusing witness with the power to bring alive the conscience of the world.”

The various protests brought international attention, and in 1974 the French Prime Minister ceased atmospheric testing, and moved the explosions on Mururoa underground.

A black and white photo that shows four people, in full body white radiation suits and respirators stand on the deck of a ship. One in the forefront holds a device connected by a wire to a box strapped to their hip. It is presumably for measuring radiation. Crew on board the HMNZS Otago at the Mururoa Nuclear Test Zone, 1973. Archives new Zealand, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Protests continue

Though the most dangerous atmospheric tests had now ceased, Aotearoa New Zealand continued to strengthen its anti-nuclear stance, which generated political friction and economic sanctions from the United States and France respectively. Protestors in small boats actively opposed the docking of allied nuclear-powered and/or armed ships in Aotearoa New Zealand. In 1984, in acknowledgement of the growing public sentiment, Prime Minister David Lange barred nuclear-powered or armed ships from entering Aotearoa New Zealand waters.

The Rainbow Warrior

a two masted, single hulled sailing ship docked at an industrial looking port. Its hull is painted a dark forest green, with the word, ‘GREENPEACE’ in large white letters. At the front, a white dove trailing a rainbow is painted. The Rainbow Warrior, by Farid Mernissi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Greenpeace protest ship Rainbow Warrior had been active in continued protest at Mururoa throughout the 80s. They also assisted with the legacy of tests by other nations. The inhabitants of Rongelap had evacuated due to fallout from the massive 1954 US Castle Bravo test but had returned to their home in 1957, having being assured it was now safe.

However, after almost two decades of pervasive disease, stunted growth, cancer, early death, and unanswered pleas to the US, they requested permanent humanitarian evacuation via the Rainbow Warrior in May of 1985. The crew obliged, taking all 320 inhabitants and their infrastructure to a safer island in three trips over ten days.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

After their Rongelap evacuation, the Rainbow Warrior returned to Aotearoa New Zealand via Vanuatu. They were planning further journeys to Mururoa to continue protest action when the ship was bombed by French agents while docked in an Auckland port on July 10th 1985, killing photographer Fernando Pereira. The story of the attack, the French agents, and the ensuing diplomatic crisis created by this act of state terror can be watched here.

This brazen attack on their own soil, just months after the Rainbow Warrior’s humanitarian efforts in the South Pacific, proved the last straw for outraged Aotearoa New Zealanders who felt both bullied, and betrayed by their superpower “allies” when neither the UK nor US stood with them against France’s actions. The country was united like never before to take a stand on the world stage and demonstrate its absolute rejection of all nuclear activity in the Pacific.

With the passing of the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act in 1987, Aotearoa New Zealand formally banned the presence of nuclear-armed or powered vessels in its territorial waters, sea, and land, and the dumping of radioactive materials was made illegal, as was the production of nuclear devices.

The USA cut Aotearoa New Zealand from the security protections it offered under the ANZUS treaty in retaliation for this stance.

France continued underground nuclear testing in Mururoa until 1996; a year after the residents of Tahiti violently rioted at news of the resumption of French nuclear testing at Mururoa after a three-year moratorium.

Further Resources

Full text of the 1990 book ’Testimonies: witnesses of French nuclear testing in the South Pacific’ by Michael Szabo (Greenpeace historian)
Testimonies contains dozens of interviews gathered by Rainbow Warrior doctor Andy Biederman during 1987–88 with extensive annotations added by Greenpeace Test Ban Campaigner Stephanie Mills to help place the personal testimonies in the chronological context of the French government’s nuclear weapons testing programme.

The Deep Secret: Reflections on Moruroa In this blog to mark the 55th anniversary of the first atmospheric test on the island of Moruroa (Mururoa), Auckland War Memorial Museum Cultural Advisor Ena Manuireva talks about the effect of the nuclear testing on his family, his community, and what still isn’t known about the lasting impacts.

French Nuclear Testing at Mururoa. Torpedo Bay Navy Museum

Archives New Zealand hold interesting several documents related to Aotearoa New Zealand’s nuclear-free story including:
-– A Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament Petition, 1979
-– Two of 1200 submissions received on the bill which led to Aotearoa New Zealand becoming nuclear free.
Notes from Prime Minister Walter Nash, perhaps drafts for a speech or press release, sometime between 1954 and 1957 on the threat of nuclear weapons to New Zealand.
A cut-and-pasted bomb threat to sent to the New Zealand Embassy in Paris in 1985, demanding investigations into the Rainbow Warrior bombing cease

The Mururoa Files, 2021 research into the effects of nuclear testing on the people of French Polynesia.

The battle continues, 50 years after first test at Mururoa, RNZ article.

For veterans of British nuclear tests, a 60-year fight for recognition goes on, RNZ article.

French Nuclear Testing in the Pacific: International Court of Justice Nuclear Tests Case New Zealand v. France, Wellington: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, July 1973

Watch documentary Mururoa 1973 (NZ On Screen)

Full length 1988 documentary, A Nuclear Free Pacific (Niuklia Fri Pasifik)

Full length 1995 documentary, Nuclear Reaction, tracking Aotearoa New Zealand’s full journey from the 50s to the 90s with atomic weaponry

Full length (1hour) Greenpeace documentary on the Rainbow Warrior attack. The Boat and the bomb (2005)

Another explainer video on Aotearoa New Zealand’s nuclear-free history

© Te Papa. All rights Reserved
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The History of Protest in Aotearoa New Zealand

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