Reconstructing Population Exposure from Past Nuclear Weapon Tests: The Case of France in the Pacific

Emlyn Hughes

Emlyn Hughes has invited Princeton University professor Sébastien Philippe to present his research at the Physics Colloquia series.

Monday, February 28, 12:30 PM EDT


Between 1966 and 1974, France conducted 41 atmospheric nuclear weapon tests in French Polynesia in the Southern Pacific Ocean, exposing local populations and veterans involved in the testing program to radioactive fallout. This talk presents the results of a two-year-long study at the intersection of nuclear science and journalism involving extensive computer simulations of nuclear test fallouts, dozens of interviews in France and Polynesia, and the analysis of 2000 pages of declassified French government documents to reevaluate exposure and contamination of the Polynesian public. It finds that existing government dose estimates may have been underestimated by factors of 2 to 10 and that the total population exposed above the dose compensation threshold set by French law could be greater than ~110,000. This latter result corresponds to about 90% of the entire population of French Polynesia at the time of the atmospheric tests. Also discussed are the legal and policy implications and impacts of these findings.

About the speaker

Sébastien Philippe is a scientist and Associate Research Scholar of Public and International Affairs with Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security. Philippe’s research combines physics, engineering, and public policy to assess, manage, and reduce risks from nuclear weapons and other military technologies to international peace and security. Current research includes developing new monitoring and verification approaches for arms control, reconstructing past nuclear weapon activities, and studying the impact of emerging technologies on strategic stability. Philippe is the co-author of Toxique, a book on the legacy of French nuclear testing in the Pacific and a finalist for the 2021 Albert Londres Prize (the French equivalent of the Pulitzer). He is also an executive committee member of the APS Forum on Physics and Society and of the Physicists Coalition for Nuclear Threats Reduction. He holds a PhD in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from Princeton, was a Stanton Nuclear Security postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, and has served as a nuclear weapon system safety engineer in France.

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