North Korea’s ruling regime may have sent the most significant signal to date that it is willing to denuclearize on Thursday, when it said it had blown up the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site in the country’s mountainous northeast. But while closing down that site could end testing there, history shows that its nuclear legacy will likely endure for a very long time.
Just ask France, Britain or the United States.
After the Brits tested a number of nuclear bombs in the southwestern Australian outback during the mid-1950s, massive cleanup operations over the following two decades allegedly contaminated local workers. Only now, over half a century after the tests, has the land been declared safe to be used once again.
The United States similarly decided to forcibly relocate the inhabitants of Bikini atoll in the Pacific to conduct nuclear tests there in the 1940s. More than 100 miles away, the resettled Bikini atoll natives were still exposed to radiation during the tests, and the U.S. government for decades faced accusations of failing to properly dismantle the testing site and decontaminate it.
Decades on, in the 1970s, the atoll’s food chain was still heavily contaminated and exposed some islanders who had returned to dangerous levels of Cesium-137. Many victims never received compensation from the United States or other nations that conducted dangerous nuclear weapons tests, including the Soviet Union and India.
While Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States ceased testing after it signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty — prohibiting nuclear tests underwater, in space and in the atmosphere — France continued its experiments well into the 1990s, despite international pressure to stop them.
Anger among residents there eventually erupted in the mid-1990s when thousands rioted on the largest island of French Polynesia, Tahiti, after a temporary stop on French tests was reversed.
At the time, the non-voting delegate from American Samoa to the U.S. House of Representatives, Eni H. Faleomavaega, voiced harsh criticism of the government in Paris for denying international observers full access to the testing site. “While the French government claims they have nothing to hide and welcome international scrutiny of their nuclear testing program, Mr. Speaker, President Chirac’s actions reveal nothing more than sheer hypocrisy not only to the good citizens of France, but to the world as well,” said Faleomavaega, using rhetoric that would later become familiar in discussions about Iran or North Korea.
In the late 1990s, France finally gave in to the pressure and decided to dismantle its testing site at the atoll of Mururoa in French Polynesia, an overseas collectivity that is composed of more than 100 islands in the South Pacific. It remains unclear how successful those dismantlement and decontamination efforts really were — especially because they were launched amid what critics say was a French coverup of the tests’ real extent.
French media outlets later revealed that the more than 180 above- and underground tests there had contaminated a much larger area than Paris previously admitted. Medical examinations also showed that islands in the proximity of the test sites had disproportionately more cancer cases.
The nuclear testing legacy haunts French officials until today. Six years ago, Australian media reported that the French government had concealed and hidden a 2010 warning that the fragile Mururoa atoll could eventually collapse, potentially triggering a tsunami and exposing residents in French Polynesia to dangerous radiation levels. Many of the holes French researchers dug into the atoll are still radioactive and will remain so for centuries.
“In the soil of Muroroa, if something happens there is about 150 holes containing very dangerous radioactivity,” Roland Oldham, the president of French Polynesia’s Nuclear Association, told Radio Australia in 2012.
The French government has gradually acknowledged its responsibility in disrupting French Polynesia’s biotope and failing to properly dismantle the testing sites. In 2009, France agreed to pay $80 million to rehabilitate another affected atoll in the South Pacific, Hao.
But the long-term risks posed by France’s tests at the atoll of Mururoa may linger for decades.
“Who is going to clean up this mess if this atoll ever, ever should leak, come out of this, because of what has happened inside this atoll? … I submit also that France does not have the capability to clean up this mess if it ever does come to this within the next 10, perhaps even 50 years that this will transpire,” Faleomavaega, the U.S. delegate, was already asking back in 1995.
That question remains unanswered, even more than two decades on, and now it is something for North Korea to think about, as well.