Roiling ocean water is seen from an aircraft shortly after a nuclear explosion beneath the French atoll of Mururoa sent out powerful shock waves Sept. 6, 1995.
This is a longer version of an article that ran in The Seattle Times Sept. 6, 1995. In addition to the Associated Press, it includes information from Reuters and the Los Angeles Times.
BY SANDY MACINTYRE
PAPEETE, Tahiti -- Ignoring international protests, France ended its three-year moratorium on nuclear tests with a powerful explosion a half-mile beneath a volcanic South Pacific atoll.
The underground blast yesterday (Sept. 5) made the lagoon at Mururoa atoll heave and froth like a whirlpool as the shock wave lashed the water, sending up white foam and mist, a video released by the French military showed.
Hours after the explosion, which briefly turned the turquoise lagoon around the atoll an eerie white before the sea erupted in a wreath of spray, nuclear engineers at the test site started preparing for another blast.
"Preparations for the second test are already under way," test site commander Gen. Paul Vericel told reporters flown in under an unprecedented French policy of openness.
French nuclear scientists, who had watched the test from deckchairs on the sun-splashed atoll and applauded politely when the lagoon boiled, said they had not detected any radiation leakage at sea level after the explosion.
The explosion was the first of eight nuclear tests planned by France. French military personnel said the blast was designed to test software so France can conduct future tests in computers, without actual detonations.
The midday blast took place in a tunnel bored 1,800 to 3,000 feet below Mururoa, military spokesman Col. Abel Moittier announced in Papeete, capital of the French territory in the South Pacific.
According to French scientists, blasts such as this one take a few millionths of a second to complete, and they instantly vaporize hundreds of pieces of sophisticated measuring equipment encased in a 25-yard-long metal canister with the test explosive.
The 70-ton bomb container would have been carefully lowered into place down a 5-foot-wide shaft, drilled using oil technology through a 600-to-1,200-foot-thick layer of limestone into the basalt core of the extinct volcano forming the base of the atoll.
The blast equaled less than 20,000 tons of TNT, the French Defense Ministry announced in Paris. By comparison, the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was equal to about 15,000 tons of TNT.
Later tests of a new warhead, however, could be up to 150,000 tons, French media reported.
Defense Minister Charles Millon today called the test "a peaceful step, a step of independence since we want to sign the treaty to definitively ban nuclear tests."
Millon told French radio Europe-1 the tests can "dissuade adversaries who, eventually would like to threaten France and Europe."
Between 1960 and 1992, when President Francois Mitterrand declared a moratorium on testing, France conducted 204 nuclear tests, 17 of them in the 1960s in the Sahara Desert and the remainder in French Polynesia. Although Australia has been one of the most vocal opponents of the resumption of French tests, the French atolls are actually closer to Los Angeles than to Sydney.
Opponents of the tests failed to persuade French President Jacques Chirac to back away from his decision to resume testing. Dozens of marches and hunger strikes have been staged in Papeete, 750 miles from the blast site, as well as in Australia, Japan and France.
France and China are the only countries known to be conducting nuclear tests. China carried out its most recent test in August.
Politicians from around the world joined in calling on Chirac to cancel the tests.
Australia's Prime Minister Paul Keating called the test "an act of stupidity," New Zealand recalled its ambassador from Paris, and Nauru, one of the Pacific's smallest island nations, announced it had suspended diplomatic relations with France. Chile recalled its ambassador.
In Washington, the White House said it regretted the French move and urged Paris to refrain from any further tests. U.S. officials said President Clinton had conveyed his concern to France over the change of policy.
Russia also expressed "deep regret" at the move and Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono said he was "extremely disappointed" that France went ahead with the test.
Chirac, a conservative elected last May, said before the test that there might be fewer blasts and they might end sooner than initially announced.
"If we have the information we need to change over to simulation, before the eight tests, obviously, regardless of the opinions of whomever, I will stop the blasts," he said. "My objective is not to carry out eight tests.
"In any case, we will stop the tests well before the date I have indicated, which was May 31."
He also reaffirmed that France will sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty when the tests are over. The treaty is under negotiation in Geneva and is expected to be completed at the end of 1996.
France has clashed repeatedly with environmentalists over its South Pacific nuclear tests. In 1985, French agents bombed and sank the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior in a New Zealand harbor, killing a Greenpeace photographer.
On July 9, French commandos boarded the ship's successor, the Rainbow Warrior II, near Mururoa and seized the vessel after tear-gassing the crew.
The French Navy seized two Greenpeace ships Sept. 1 and intercepted rubber rafts and divers who approached the atolls. Two protesters -- former British commandos -- were arrested Sept. 5 after penetrating security to reach the atoll. One spent the night there.
Seeking to counter widespread condemnation of the tests, which are opposed by 60 percent of the French according to recent opinion polls, the French government has released an unprecedented barrage of information on its nuclear program, including details of radiation contamination. It even invited foreign reporters to Mururoa, a closed atoll, last month to answer questions about its program.
French government scientists contend that of the more than 200 tests the country has conducted in the past, aerial and underground, only three have caused radiation contamination. Two tests in 1966 and a third in 1973 caused some contamination at Mururoa and 25 miles away at Fangataufa, which the French government says was cleaned up.
Current government statistics indicate that the level of radiation in the atolls is lower than in France, where the effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant accident in the former Soviet Union still are measurable, though not considered to be a health threat. In the lagoon waters of the atolls, radiation levels are slightly above normal but still below levels in the Baltic Sea, according to the French.
Anti-nuclear activists argue that the tests may have done damage, still undetected, to the fragile coral reef.
A report last month by scientists from Australia and New Zealand concluded that the tests pose minimal health risks to people living in the region. But they said the main testing site at Mururoa could leak radiation within 50 years.
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