France last night exploded a test nuclear weapon with the power of almost 20,000 tonnes of TNT at its underground nuclear test site at Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific.
The explosion at 12.30pm South Pacific time, 10.30pm BST, ended a three- year French moratorium on nuclear testing and came despite a mounting international campaign calling on France to abandon the tests announced by President Jacques Chirac on 23 June.
Greenpeace, the environmental group, which tried to stop last night's test with a series of raids on the atoll by its activists over recent days, instantly condemned France for going ahead with the test.
Thomas Schultz, Greenpeace International's nuclear campaign co-ordinator, said in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia: "This underground test is an outrageous act which shows contempt for local, political and public values. In carrying out the test, Chirac will have to face more than 150 governments and millions of people worldwide.
Only hours before the test French commandos arrested two Greenpeace activists at Mururoa after they invaded the atoll in a Zodiac dinghy and paddled across the lagoon in two kayaks
French military spokesmen in Papeete claimed that they were former British SAS commandos but Greenpeace denied this.
Ulrich Jurgens, Greenpeace's campaign director, said in Papeete that he was worried for the safety of activists who were still at Mururoa. "There could be more people around the island," he said. "Greenpeace has several teams of activists still undertaking secret activities around the site."
Announcing the test in Papeete last night Lt. Col Yves Bourboulon, a French military spokesman, said: "France has proceeded to a nuclear test at 12.30 this morning at Mururoa.The test was less than 20 kilotonnes." He gave no further details. The test was the 193rd nuclear weapons test which France has conducted since the 1960s. Most have happened at Muruoa and the neighbouring atoll of Fangataufa since France transferred its testing there from Algeria in 1966.
The explosion followed hints by President Jacques Chirac yesterday that he might order an early halt to the test programme. His comments seemed designed to soften international criticism and growing domestic disquiet. But it was unclear to what extent he was signalling a real shift in French policy. Mr Chirac said, in a television interview, he would cut short the maximum programme of eight tests if the early explosions yielded the scientific data France needed. He went on to promise that the test series would be completed more rapidly than the nine months originally allowed. "In any case, we will stop the tests before the date I have indicated, which was May 31st," he said.
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