Thursday, February 17, 2005

Force Frappe

It is said that these days it is not necessary to test a nuclear weapon to know that it will work. But when I was growing up, in the days of the Arms Race & the Cold War, nuclear tests were all the go.

In New Zealand we didn't have the paranoia of nuclear strikes & bomb shelters. Our fear was more real, a fear of the impact of the tests, because the South Pacific was a favourite testing ground. The U.S. used Bikini Atoll; the English tested their bombs either on the mainland of Australia or on islands off the coast. & the French? Well they used Mururoa Atoll which was so close to N.Z. that there was an earthquake everytime they set a bomb off. They started in 1966, & didn't finish until less than a decade ago. The report below, from a speech in the New South Wales Parliament in 1995 condemning the French for carrying out another test, covers the history.
In 1966 France moved its testing program to the South Pacific. It resumed atmospheric tests instead of underground tests. Those bombs were detonated using either barges or balloons. On three occasions the bombs were dropped from high-flying aircraft. I refer to a number of incidents in relation to the safety record of the French nuclear testing. In July 1966 a safety firing was conducted at Mururoa. It was designed not to explode, and it did not. However, the bomb fragmented and the case broke apart, resulting in the dispersal of plutonium. In order to contain the radiation, the French simply covered the contaminated area with bitumen. In September 1966, just following that so-called safety firing, President de Gaulle attended another test at Mururoa. It is reported that due to his impatience the bomb was detonated despite adverse wind conditions, which resulted in radioactive fallout to all islands west of Mururoa, including Western Samoa - 2,000 miles away - Fiji and the Cook Islands.

After a nuclear test on Fangataufa atoll in 1968 it was said that the atoll was so heavily contaminated that all tests were conducted on Mururoa for the next two years. It was recommended that humans not visit Fangataufa atoll for six years. In 1970 the French defence Minister flew into Mururoa and took a swim in the lagoon six hours after a detonation, to placate the critics. French atmospheric tests have resulted in widespread fallout of radioactive material on many countries bordering the South Pacific, including a further disastrous account of fallout on one of the Polynesian atolls in 1971.

Despite these slight difficulties, President de Gaulle's atmospheric tests continued until 1974. International outrage finally forced France to move the South Pacific tests underground from 1975, but the testing continued relentlessly. A further eight underground tests were conducted in the 1970s. One test in 1976 was infamous because radioactive gas did not escape along the predicted path and, according to media reports of the time, technicians were still trying to find out what happened to it. A further 103 bombs were exploded in the South Pacific atolls between 1980 and the moratorium in 1992. It is believed that, in total, France has exploded 191 nuclear weapons during its testing program - 17 in Algeria and the remainder in our ocean.

An Australian Government report states, "There seems no doubt that nuclear explosions have damaged the structure of the surrounding reef at Mururoa." In 1987 Jacques Cousteau found what was thought to be manmade cracking or fissuring during inspection dives. However, France is not too worried about this cracking. It claims that the volcanic rock underneath is unaffected, but admits that the basalt rock can be fractured up to 400 metres around the bomb site. It is best to think of the atolls as Swiss cheese: as each explosion is moved to a different location, it creates an underground cavern. There is a pattern of them across the atoll. President Chirac wants us to believe that such a radioactive honeycomb is safe forever. It is important to remember that the French do not have a good safety record with regard to nuclear testing; in fact, its record is very poor.
& not content with that, agents of the French Secret Service blew up Greenpeace's flagship Rainbow Warrior, a major participant in the on-going flotilla of protest boats that blockaded the test sites, in Auckland Harbour in 1985, killing one of the crew.

So forgive me if I find a certain black humour in the news announcement that a French company is seeking to mine for uranium in Australia's heritage-listed Kakadu National Park. (Think Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon for U.S. equivalents.)

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