Paris strives to stay in race

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The Independent Online

Science Editor

President Jacques Chirac's disdain for international opinion as he presses forward with the French nuclear tests in the Pacific directly echoes the actions of his political hero, Charles de Gaulle.

By authorising the first French nuclear test in the Algerian desert in 1960, de Gaulle flouted a moratorium on testing agreed by Britain, the US and the Soviet Union which, diplomats then hoped, would lead to a comprehensive ban on all nuclear tests.

Mr Chirac too is breaching a moratorium agreed by the Americans, British and Russians which, diplomats hope, might lead to a comprehensive test ban treaty. He is doing it for the same reasons: to demonstrate French independence, and out of fear of being left behind technically.

France was late in realising that nuclear testing might be banned; officially, this series of eight explosions is needed so that engineers and scientists can calibrate their computer simulations to behave exactly like a real explosion.

With greater foresight, Britain and the US have been using old test data and more advanced computer programs to "convert to the laboratory environment", and believe they can assure the safety and reliability of existing nuclear weapons without having to detonate any of them.

But according to Suzanna van Moyland, an arms control expert with the London-based Vertic organisation: "Eight tests is so many and so expensive and the political environment is so bad that one can't help feeling that it doesn't add up."

Dr van Moyland believes that the French military may be taking the opportunity as well to test two new generations of warheads.

These are a submarine-launched warhead and a new air-to-surface cruise- like variable-yield warhead. Both were in the pipeline in the early 1990s, before President Chirac's predecessor, Francois Mitterrand imposed a moratorium.

Nuclear weapons are highly engineered, precision devices. Although today's warheads work by the same principles as those of 40 years ago, they look as much like the first atomic and hydrogen bombs as a Maserati resembles a Model T Ford.

Their complexity means that, although they are put together by some of the cleverest scientists and engineers money can buy, the first example of a new design has to be tested to show that it will actually work. A nuclear test ban thus represents a significant step towards nuclear disarmament, because it means the end of new generations of weapons systems.

This poses a direct threat to the raison d'etre of weapons laboratories: with no new systems to develop, would-be weapons designers will seek jobs outside the military sphere and the expertise required even to manufacture the bomb will rapidly deteriorate.

Some of the arguments being used to justify testing, therefore, tend to take on the character of last-ditch defences by large organisations involved in a fight to ensure their own survival.