High levels of radioactive contamination in French Polynesia

Unexpectedly high levels of radioactive contamination are being discovered in French Polynesia nearly a decade after nuclear testing ended on Mururoa Atoll.

Up to five people a day are being sent to private hospitals in Auckland for diagnosis and treatment for what may be radiation-related illnesses, officials say.

The territory's president Oscar Temaru has accused the French Government of a continuing, high-level cover-up over the health and environmental consequences of the testing.

"We have a lot of health problems," he said.

Though France preferred such patients to be sent to Paris, it was cheaper and closer to send them to New Zealand, an official of Mr Temaru's said.

France conducted 41 atmospheric nuclear tests over the Tuamotu atolls of Mururoa and Fangataufa between 1966 and 1974.

It followed these up with 134 underground nuclear tests at the same testing sites between 1975 and 1991. Eight more tests took place in 1995 and 1996.

In July, Mr Temaru set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the tests and it was due to report back next month.

But he said the French Ministry of Defence was refusing to cooperate with the commission and was keeping secret files in Paris while insisting that Mururoa and Fangataufa remain off limits.

He believed it was covering up serious, continuing health problems.

"I witnessed what happened to the atoll of Mururoa," he said. "It is still forbidden to go to Mururoa."

Outside experts, including specialists from Japan, had looked at the situation but were being denied access to crucial health statistics.

Mr Temaru said that the commission was doing its best.

"One of them (commission members) told me they found out very strange, very high levels of contamination from the atoll of Tureia."

The data had to be analysed in France but Mr Temaru said people did not know what was going on.

"We need a neutral organisation to come to Tahiti, and France should open those secret archives and tell us why they are still secret."

Tureia, 115 kilometres northeast of Mururoa, has about 100 people living on it. It is the closest resident population to the test sites.

Inquiry commission head Tea Hirshon said the aim was to make a precise assessment of the effects of nuclear tests on the environment and the health of the Polynesians.

- NZPA

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