Hiroshima Memo: France’s nuclear deterrence policy underpinned by authorities’ concealment of information about nuclear damage

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

“In France, there are no radiation-affected sufferers due to nuclear testing,” a leading figure in the radiology world who had been engaged in research on radiation damage and cancer for many years at the Institute Curie in Paris declared. He made this remark during an interview with the Chugoku Shimbun, which was collecting materials in 1989 for a feature series entitled “Exposure: Victims of Radiation Speak Out.” When I think about France’s nuclear policy, which can be described as “nuclear supremacy,” these words are brought back to my mind even now.

The Institute Curie, named after Madame Curie, the person who discovered radium, had been on the cutting edge of treatment for those exposed to radiation. As one example, the Institute Curie performed the world’s first bone marrow transplant for a victim of an accident at a nuclear reactor. Precisely because of this situation, the institute must have been familiar with a large number of cases of radiation exposure. However, the above-mentioned doctor boasted that his nation faced no such difficulties, including radiation exposure stemming from a nuclear power plant, thanks to thorough safety measures.

France upholds a policy of nuclear deterrence and relies on nuclear power generation for more than 70 percent of its energy, the highest degree of dependence on nuclear energy in the world. Under the control of the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (Atomic and Alternatives Energies Commission) (CEA), French authorities have concealed information about nuclear damage which could provoke anxiety or skepticism among its people, taking care not to leak the information to outsiders, so that both its military posture and its posture toward civilians can be maintained.

In those days in France, it was not easy to locate sufferers of radiation and the families of those who died due to radiation exposure. The reality was that nuclear-affected sufferers and the bereaved families whom I met back then were uniformly fighting a lonely battle for compensation.

I visited France again in 2004 with two A-bomb survivors, university students, and others as part of a project called the “Hiroshima World Peace Mission.” At the time, a group of victims of nuclear tests and depleted uranium munitions, a radioactive weapon, among others, had already been established. A-bomb survivors from Hiroshima and sufferers of radiation in France were able to share their experiences as “hibakusha,” or those who have been exposed to radiation. At a gathering of citizens and at other events organized by those engaged in the peace movement, the participants of the Hiroshima World Peace Mission also conveyed the “spirit of Hiroshima,” the wish for the elimination of nuclear weapons and a world at peace, by relating the A-bomb experience and showing photo panels depicting the atomic bombing that they had brought from Hiroshima.

I gained the impression that the activities pursued by veterans exposed to radiation, among others, had led to the establishment of the organization of victims, while steady efforts to convey the reality of the atomic bombings by Miho Cibot, a Japanese peace activist residing in France, among other French peace activists, were gradually changing French citizens’ belief in nuclear deterrence.

At the same time, there were a number of encounters that shocked the participants of the Hiroshima World Peace Mission. “Nuclear possession is part of our foreign policy, and is vital to our national security.” “At heart, every nation wishes to possess nuclear weapons. Because of this, nuclear weapons cannot be eliminated from the world.” Such opinions were uttered, without hesitation, by researchers at the French Institute of International Relations, which was deeply involved in the security policy of the French government. These words further depressed the participants of the mission, including the A-bomb survivors, especially because such remarks were made after French researchers admitted that France did not have any distinct enemies in the post-Cold War era.

By applying the same French logic, no one should complain if other nations, even North Korea and Iran, resort to building a nuclear arsenal. What will become of the world if more nations, in succession, come to possess nuclear weapons? Meanwhile, we have entered an era in which there is a growing possibility that armed non-state groups will seek to undertake acts of nuclear terrorism. These researchers, among others, lacked even the imagination to speculate on these problems.

France’s nuclear deterrence policy and its concealment of information about radiation damage and environmental pollution caused by nuclear tests are, even now, closely connected. In order to change this state of affairs, it is vital to convey the radiation damage wrought by France more widely, as well as the reality of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With increasing awareness of this reality, the possibility of effecting change in the deep-rooted policy of nuclear deterrence can arise.

(Originally published on December 6, 2010)

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