2022 Winner

Mururoa Files

Country/area: France

Organisation: Disclose,Interprt,Princeton

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 09/03/2021

Credit: Sébastien Philippe,Tomas Statius, Mathieu Asselin, Nabil Ahmed,Olga Lucko, Svitlana Lavrenchuk


Sébastien Philippe is an Associate Research Scholar at the School of Public and International Affairs with the Program on Science and Global Security. He is also an associate fellow (2019-2021) at the Nuclear Knowledges Program at Sciences-Po, Paris. His research focuses on the monitoring and verification of international agreements, the reconstruction of past nuclear weapon activities (nuclear archaeology), and the impact of emerging technologies on the safety, security, and vulnerability of strategic nuclear forces.

Tomas Statius is an investigative journalist working for several newsroom Libé, Disclose, Mediapart.

Nabil Ahmed is a transdisciplinary scholar and writer. He leads INTERPRT, an environmental justice project that investigates and advocates for the criminalization of ecocide under international law.

Olga Lucko leads INTERPRT’s spatial research and design projects. She has been responsible for developing visual forensic evidence for the past five years. She is an ARB registered architect with experience working on public building projects in the UK with renowned practices Tim Ronalds Architects and Clash Architects.

Slitvana Lavrenchuk is responsible for geospatial data analysis and design. She has an MArch from the Royal College of Art. Her research interests include interdisciplinary responses to climate change in the arctic.

Mathieu Asselin is a freelance photographer. Before working on Mururoa Files, he takes on the daunting task of exploring the controversial and infamous agricultural company, Monsanto, through investigative photography,

Project description:

Disclose and Interprt, in collaboration with the Science & Global Security program at Princeton University (USA), investigated the consequences of atmospheric testing in French Polynesia for two years. With the help of thousands of declassified military documents, hundreds of hours of calculations and dozens of unpublished testimonies, this investigation demonstrates for the first time the extent of the radioactive fallout that struck the inhabitants of this vast territory as the ‘Europe.

Impact reached:

After the publication of our investigation, demonstrations took place in French Polynesia to demand an apology from the French state. A summit was organized in Paris to bring together representatives of the French state and Polynesia to improve compensation for victims and to facilitate access to military archives during this period. The President of the French Republic visited Polynesia in July and acknowledged that France had “a debt”.

The State has announced the opening of the military archives on nuclear testing. A commission has been set up to provide assistance with the preparation of compensation files for victims of nuclear testing, the clean-up and deconstruction of former nuclear sites

Techniques/technologies used:

According to our calculations, based on a scientific reassessment of the doses received, approximately 110,000 people were infected, almost the entire Polynesian population at the time. Modelling toxic clouds to support, we also unveil how the French authorities have concealed the true impact of nuclear testing on the health of Polynesians for more than fifty years.

The scientific visualizations presented on this platform were produced through the extensive data mining and analysis of declassified French documents and open access government sources.The reconstruction of fallout patterns and cloud trajectories from French nuclear tests was done using the US NOAA Hybrid Single-Particle Integrated Trajectory (HYSPLIT) particle transport and dispersion model and meteorological data from the NCEP/NCAR Reanalysis (1948 – present) project. Initial stabilized radioactive clouds were represented as vertical linear sources with activity adequately distributed among the cap, skirt and stem of the cloud. The cloud particle sizes were assumed to be log-normally distributed. Calculations were run on a 12-core linux machine and involved the release of 3,000,000 3D particles each.

The hypothesis and input data of these studies were crossed checked with information available from the declassified historical documents as well as information available from the scientific literature.

What was the hardest part of this project?

For two years, nuclear physics researchers, designers, architects and journalists worked together on this investigation.  This international project was carried out between Princeton University in the United States, the architects’ collective “Interprt” working on ecocides in England and Norway, and the French investigative media Disclose. This collaboration was made extremely difficult because this team of about ten people could never meet in real life, due to the covid-19 crisis. The other main challenge was to develop a technological model to virtually recreate the French nuclear tests in the laboratory using the powerful computers at Princeton.

Once these scientific calculations were made, the designers and architects modelled in 3D the trajectory of the radioactive clouds and their fallout on the islands of French Polynesia. They also modelled the precise level of fallout on a village and the contamination of food and inhabitants.

On the other hand, the journalists investigated French state military documents, met with sources involved in the nuclear tests and went to the field to meet victims, find documents hidden by the state about the health impact.

This project deserves to be selected because it is unprecedented in its method. It brings together the methods of scientific investigation, 3D modelisation, forensic architecture and journalism to strengthen the evidence. Science supports journalistic work to produce rigorous investigations.

What can others learn from this project?

This investigative story shows how international collaboration on sensitive issues can be done completely remotely, using tools such as Slack to coordinate the progress of projects, organize videoconferences on Meetjitsi (encrypted video) and groups on Signal.

Above all, it teaches how different methods of investigation can complement each other: the search for evidence in science is stricter than in journalism. It also enhances the accuracy of an investigation, as journalists find themselves integrating the precise methodology of scientists. It is not easy to get scientists, architects, designers and journalists to work together. The working methods are not the same, so we have to agree on a common method.

The investigative hypotheses put forward by the journalists are in fact confirmed or not by the scientific experiment, then by the 3D modelling. On the one hand, journalists have access to sources to which scientists would not have had access. And the scientists have access to documents that are not accessible to journalists. This project will hopefully lead to more such collaborations in the years to come.

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