Paris to get tough with Greenpeace over test zone

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Fresh from swimming in the lagoon at Mururoa atoll, Jean Jacques de Peretti, the French Minister for Overseas Territories, indicated yesterday that France would get tough with Greenpeace if it tried to sail its protest vessel Rainbow Warrior II into the same lagoon in a bid to disrupt the nuclear tests.

"It's a private place," he said. "It would be like me walking into your bathroom." Mr de Peretti was speaking in Papeete, on the island of Tahiti, after returning from a visit to the nuclear test sites of Mururoa and Fangataufa, 620 miles south, where he made a point of going scuba diving to counter the argument of Greenpeace and other environmental groups that the two atolls are leaching radioactive waste into the Pacific after 139 underground tests there since 1975.

Wearing a rubber suit, he descended 120 feet below the surface of the lagoon enclosed by Mururoa atoll to inspect the site of the last test, conducted in July 1991. "I wasn't nervous before I went into the water," said Mr de Peretti. "But I was anxious because of the sea and the swell. The real problem is not the radioactive danger there, but how to get an international nuclear test agreement."

Mr de Peretti maintained that radiation levels at Mururoa were lower than in Europe and Australia. "If the two atolls of Mururoa and Fangataufa broke up tomorrow, and all the radioactive waste contained there since the beginning of the tests [in 1966] went into the sea, the amount would be less than the nuclear waste from one year's functioning of a nuclear power reactor," he said.

Since France has allowed no full-scale independent scientific analysis of its test sites, such a claim cannot be verified. The structures of both atolls, 25 miles apart, are reported to have suffered damage, from repeated drilling and blasting at Mururoa and from high-yield explosions at Fangataufa. The calm of the lagoon where Mr de Peretti swam will be shatteredvery soon - any time after tomorrow - when France resumes nuclear testing with plans for seven or eight underground explosions. The last group of tests in the series will be aimed at gathering data for the movement towards simulating future tests on computer after May.

The Rainbow Warrior, Greenpeace and Vega, and a Danish vessel, Bifrost, were 20 miles off Mururoa yesterday and ready to breach the 12-mile military exclusion zone around the test sites. For the second night running, the Rainbow Warrior circled Mururoa and Fangataufa, with the French navy frigate Prairial tailing it.

"Our objective is to stop the first test," Thomas Schultz, the nuclear campaign co-ordinator of Greenpeace International said. That test, he suggested, could be a high-yield explosion and may have to be held at Fangataufa because of damage to Mururoa. "We're ready to move to either test site," he said.

The Federated States of Micronesia yesterday joined Australia, Western Samoa and the Marshall Islands in the case which New Zealand launched last week in the International Court to stop France conducting nuclear tests in the Pacific.