Battle lines drawn over Mururoa testing

The French are ignoring protest flotillas and boycotts against their planned nuclear blasts, writes Robert Milliken in Sydney

As the countdown began to France's resumption of nuclear tests in French Polynesia, 5,000 people marched through the Tahitian capital, Papeete, on Saturday calling on President Jacques Chirac of France to abandon the programme. At the same time, a traditional canoe filled with chanting sailors from the Cook Islands led an international convoy of 30 vessels setting out for Mururoa atoll, where they plan to stage a symbolic protest against the tests.

As the boats from New Zealand, Australia and Pacific island nations, together with the Greenpeace protest vessel Rainbow Warrior II, took to the seas, politicians and anti-nuclear activists from the Pacific, Europe and Japan were preparing to gather in Papeete for demonstrations next weekend.

Their protests are likely to be ignored by the French government. If Paris sticks to its declared timetable, then some time after midnight on Friday 1 September, a nuclear device in a shaft drilled under the lagoon at Mururoa will explode with enough power to cause a small earthquake.

This will be the first of seven or eight nuclear tests planned to be conducted between September and May. Greenpeace has said that Rainbow Warrior II and other craft will try to breach the 12-mile military exclusion zone around Mururoa. Philippe Euverte, the French naval commander in the South Pacific, said that the tests would go ahead regardless of whether protest ships were inside the lagoon.

The French navy frigate Prairial was reportedly tailing the Rainbow Warrior II yesterday, at a distance of about two miles.

In Australia, five anti-nuclear protesters were arrested when they landed inflatable craft outside the official residence of Paul Keating, the Prime Minister, on Sydney Harbour and unfurled a banner calling on the Australian government to send a protest ship to Mururoa.

Since Mr Chirac announced the testing programme on 13 June, it has sparked one of the biggest anti-nuclear and anti-French protest movements the Pacific has seen. Demonstrations and boycotts of French products in Australia and New Zealand have been followed by personal abuse against French people living in both countries. French relations with Canberra and Wellington have plummeted.

Mr Chirac has badly underestimated the strength of opposition in the Pacific. Since the French began testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific in 1966, the region has grown increasingly outraged at their actions. The first 41 tests at Mururoa and neighbouring Fangataufa atoll were in the atmosphere: France has never signed the Partial Test-Ban Treaty of 1963, under which Britain, the US and the then Soviet Union agreed to end atmospheric testing.

Concern over French intransigence provided a fillip for the formation in 1971 of the South Pacific Forum. Then, many island nations were colonial dependencies of Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Now, France is the last major European colonial power in the Pacific, and the forum has become an established body of 15 independent nations whose largest members, Australia and New Zealand, have developed a close regional identity with their island neighbours.

France switched its Pacific tests underground in 1975 only after Australia and New Zealand had launched action in the International Court of Justice calling for an end to atmospheric testing. Up to 1992, when Francois Mitterrand, the former president, declared a test moratorium, the French conducted 139 underground tests at the two coral atolls. That moratorium, together with the end of the Cold War and moves towards a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, created a belief in the Pacific that the bad old days were finally over.

That hope was shattered on 13 June. The outcry since then appears to have shaken the French. They have declared that, after May, they will be in a position to conduct future tests by computer simulation. In any case, they argue, Mururoa - 625 miles south-east of Tahiti - is one of the world's most remote locations, where testing is unlikely to harm anyone.

The Pacific countries retort that this is typical French arrogance. After almost 30 years of testing in their territory, many Polynesians have been driven to demand independence from France.

A report by 20 leading Australian scientists, presented to South Pacific Forum environment ministers 10 days ago, said: "The French tests, which are conducted between 600 and 1,200 metres underground in volcanic rock, by their very nature result in localised fracturing of the rock around each test site ... More significant is the risk of long-term leakage of the longer-lived radio-isotopes into the lagoon and surrounding ocean."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test