French Nuclear Testing in Mururoa

Geoffrey Lewis
March 22, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Excerpt from University of Hawai'i Ka Leo O Hawai'i article by J. Ma. [2]

Mururoa is an atoll located in French Polynesia in the southern Pacific Ocean. It is a coral atoll on top of volcanic basalt. [1] Located near Tahiti, Mururoa is home to beautiful waters and looks like a small tropical paradise. Mururoa was taken over by France when French Catholic missionaries began the colonization of Polynesia. Under French control, Mururoa was subject to French rule. This included nuclear testing.

French Nuclear Testing

There have been over 70 nuclear tests performed by the French in Mururoa and Fangataufa Atolls between 1975 and 1985. [1] Studies at the time claimed that the testing provided no radiological threat to either human beings in French Polynesia or marine life surrounding the atolls. [1] On Mururoa, there are some areas that are better for testing than others. The French realized this and consolidated most of their testing on one region. The center massif of the atoll, located underneath the lagoon, is more dense and less fractured than the outer regions of Mururoa. This makes it a safer region to do the nuclear testing. [1]

Native Pushback

The French nuclear testing on Mururoa did not sit well with native polynesians. In fact, the Pacific Islanders believed that they were entitled to the final decision on nuclear testing. [2] Fig. 1 shows a clipping from the Ka Leo O Hawai'i newspaper expressing this sentiment. (Ka Leo O Hawai'i is a student-run newspaper at the University of Hawai'i that started in 1922.) Many Pacific Islanders saw themselves as more than just inhabitants of the land, but also guardians of the land. They believed that it was their duty to protect the environment. [2] It was even recorded that there was structural damage to the coral reef surrounding the atoll and plutonium was found in the ocean surrounding Mururoa. [2]


According to the Washington Post, the nuclear testing on Mururoa is a reminder to the rest of the world of outdated colonial control over territories overseas. [3] Mururoa is an atoll just 750 miles southeast of Tahiti, a country colonized by France. [3] Despite France's judgment that this was the safest way to test nuclear bombs, the native Pacific Islanders disagreed. They took it upon themselves to speak out to protect their home land and waters.

© Geoffrey Lewis. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "French Underground Nuclear Testing: Environmentally Safe and Likely to Continue," U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, May 1985.

[2] J. Ma, "French Symposium Ousted," University of Hawaii at Manoa, 26 Oct 95.

[3] J. Hoagl, "Wages of French Colonialism," Washington Post, 19 Oct 95.