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Apocalypse Now _ Or Never? French Wonder What Nuke Tests Will Do

August 19, 1995

PARIS (AP) _ In nightmarish detail, Pierre Vincent describes the cataclysmic chain reaction he thinks France could trigger by setting off a nuclear test blast under an island in the South Pacific.

In his doomsday scenario, the shock wave topples a brittle undersea volcano. That triggers a tidal wave that tears open the sea floor and unleashes vast amounts of radioactivity, forever spoiling a tropical paradise.

C’est impossible, scoffs Yves Galland. He’s convinced that detonating atomic weapons a half-mile below the surface of coral-encrusted Mururoa Atoll, in French Polynesia, will release no more radiation than what’s already in the Paris subway.

That gulf between Vincent, a respected geologist, and Galland, a Cabinet minister, underscores the debate now polarizing the French. Just what will happen when France sets off the first of eight planned blasts next month at Mururoa, southeast of Hawaii? Apocalypse now? Or never?

Paris these days is a nuclear cafe buzzing with divisive test talk.

``Reports contradict each other, experts oppose experts,″ the newspaper L’Est Republicain grumbled in an editorial this week. ``One says white: no health hazard. The other says black: watch out for radioactive leaks.″

France says seven or eight blasts are needed to develop computer simulations that will make further testing unnecessary, and has promised to sign a global test ban treaty next year. President Jacques Chirac, who announced in June he would break a 3-year-old testing moratorium, insists the tests will pose ``no ecological harm.″

Trying to quell an international outcry _ and counter French television’s misleading use of a mushroom cloud to symbolize the tests _ France issued a report this month that makes it sound as though exploding a warhead underground is about as seismically exciting as lighting up a Gauloise.

The report said the world’s three primary sources of artificial radiation are atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, major nuclear accidents and byproducts of nuclear energy production _ not the type of underground testing France wants to resume.

After 30 years of underground tests, ``the percentage of radionucleids in French Polynesia is less than that of France or northern Europe,″ said Gen. Michel Boileau, director of France’s Nuclear Test Center.

Yet many scientists disagree on what new tests will do, even though the French government has offered to let them scrutinize the test site.

Fearing that a test accident could leak radioactive material into the ocean, 80 scientists from around the world have signed a Greenpeace call for an immediate environmental study. And UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, has warned that little is known about the long-term effects of such blasts.

``The sites have become an unregulated dump for very strong radioactive waste,″ said Dr. Paul Johnston of Greenpeace’s research laboratory in Exeter, England.

France has set off 204 nuclear blasts since 1960, when President Charles de Gaulle made France a nuclear power. France stopped testing above ground in 1974 and bored a test tunnel beneath Mururoa, where it has conducted 138 underground blasts.

Vincent, of the Center for Volcanic Research in Clermont-Ferrand in southern France, contends all that nuclear pounding has fractured the atoll and conditions are ripe for disaster. He fears that renewed testing could collapse part of Mururoa’s long-extinct undersea volcano and expose radiation meant to stay in the bowels of the Earth.

``It could lead to very strong radioactive pollution,″ he said.

Not a chance, contend others in the scientific community.

``Done correctly, the environmental effects are negligible,″ said Chuck McWilliam, operations director for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Nevada nuclear test site, who has monitored Russia’s underground test program.

``When the device goes off it melts the earth around it and forms a pool that solidifies like glass, and 99.99 percent of the contaminants stay there,″ he said. ``It may put fissures in the floor of the sea, but it’s not going to release anything measurable.″

Scientists in Australia and New Zealand _ where test opposition has been fiercest _ said much the same thing in a report this week that concluded any health risks ``likely would be small.″

Even so, there is anecdotal evidence suggesting numerous birth defects and certain cancers among islanders living near the test site. Hans Veeken, of the charity Doctors Without Borders, wrote in the issue of the British Medical Journal out Saturday that children are being born without an anus.

Many scientists agree that France’s insistence on a final round of tests has jeopardized efforts to get the nuclear powers to sign a test ban treaty by the end of 1996. France itself admits that some of the tests are to try out a new warhead.

That may be the biggest reason for Chirac to reconsider, says the International Society of Doctors for the Environment, a group representing physicians and scientists from France and 64 other countries.

New tests ``are incompatible with a new world order where people are fighting to assure conditions for a lasting and peaceful life on the Earth,″ it said.

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