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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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

MBDA UK Ltd: Test Systems Design Engineer

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity?MBDA has en...

MBDA UK Ltd: PCB Technologies Engineer

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity?MBDA has en...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Reprographics Assistant

£12500 - £13500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest independent reprogr...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor