Brussels steps in to challenge French N-tests

r EU's demand may halt Pacific blasts r Commission faces battle with Chirac
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IN A MOVE that could halt French nuclear tests in the South Pacific, the European Commission will this week instruct France to reveal all safety information within five days or face action in the European Court of Justice.

A letter to the French government demanding data on radioactivity levels and geological damage at the test sites has been drawn up by senior EU officials and is expected to be agreed at a full meeting of the Commission in Strasbourg on Wednesday.

This represents an unprecedented challenge by Brussels to a member state and will put the Commission on a collision course with Jacques Chirac, the French President. The action reflects anger in the Commission at France's refusal to hand over information in accordance with the EU's Euratom Treaty, which gives the Commission responsibility for public health and safety in the case of a "particularly dangerous experiment".

The letter calls on France to produce all geological data relating to past tests and to the two tests so far in the current series, plus data on radiation levels before and after recent tests.

The text, to be finalised by officials tomorrow before the Commission votes on Wednesday, warns that if it fails to hand over the data, "France could be held liable for failing to carry out obligations under article 192" of the Euratom Treaty. It continues: "The Commission asks France to transmit the information within five days and in any case before any further test in the current series is carried out."

The Commission's nuclear and environment experts fear the tests on the Mururoa and Fangataufa atolls in the Pacific may be causing geological damage, bringing a risk of radiation leaks. "There are concerns that the atolls could be cracking up and leading to escapes of radiation," said one expert. "I have no doubt that these experiments are particularly dangerous and should be stopped." Another official added: "It is in France's interest to hand this information over if it has nothing to hide."

If France does not comply, the Commission will have the right to call on the European Court in Luxembourg to halt the tests and act against France for breaching the Treaty. This would be a dramatic step as the Court is rarely presented with cases of such huge political and diplomatic importance. Judgement against France would undoubtedly precipitate crisis in Paris. The Commission, however, clearly hopes the threat alone might persuade Mr Chirac to comply with the terms of the Euratom Treaty now.

The French government is already leaning heavily on the Commission, arguing that it has handed over the necessary data, and questioning whether the Euratom Treaty applies in this case. In a sign of anger, the French have withdrawn co-operation from several other EU nuclear safety programmes, Commission sources say.

Jacques Santer, the Commission President, has accepted the need for action with some reluctance. According to Brussels sources, Commission experts advised him to send a team to the atolls in July to inspect safety installations and gather data ahead of the tests. However, no team was sent until 17 September, after the first test. The team was denied access to the atolls and humiliated by the French military authorities, who merely showed them films of previous tests and gave them lectures on the dangers of smoking.

Mr Santer has now toughened the Commission's stance following pressure from the European Parliament and from several EU member states.

In the coming row, France will be relying on British support - the British Government, almost alone, has refused to criticise the tests, saying it was a French matter. But John Major himself faces a strong, concerted attack on the test issue when the Commonwealth heads of government conference opens in New Zealand next month.

Malcolm Turnbull, page 21