MURUROA ATOLL, SOUTH PACIFIC — PEARL-WHITE sand, turquoise water, and 168 pockets of plutonium buried deep in basalt rock.
Club Med might well have snatched Mururoa Atoll for a tropical retreat, but the French military got here first. Now, after 26 years of nuclear testing above and below this remote South Pacific coral reef, France is mounting a public relations blitz to defend what it insists will be its final series of tests.
"Greenpeace says the ground you're standing on is radioactive," French Col. Patrice Delcourt told journalists assembled at the atoll's northern end. "If that were true, would we be standing here?"
To clinch his point, the colonel schedules a swim in the lagoon that covers most of the underground test sites and serves fish caught in local waters.
A Polynesian who also lives and works at Mururoa is not convinced. "I weep for my children," he whispers to a visiting journalist. "The water is poison."
Activists are trying to mobilize such concerns across French Polynesia, 138 islands covering an area the size of Europe. Tomorrow's opening of the Pacific Games in Tahiti provides a new rallying point for protests - and a test of whether antinuclear groups with very different agendas can work together.
In Polynesian, Mururoa means "place of deep secrets." Mururoa and neighboring Fangataufa Atoll were the sites of some 175 nuclear tests. France came here after atmospheric tests in Algeria ended in 1966 - some four years after Algerian independence from France.
In 1992, then-French President Francois Mitterrand imposed a moratorium on French nuclear testing. But new French President Jacques Chirac announced on June 13 a new series of underground tests before France signs a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996.
A firestorm of protest
Stung by a subsequent economic boycott and international criticism - especially intense during this week's commemoration of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - French officials opened their test site some 750 miles southeast of Tahiti to a group of international journalists this week.
"No other nuclear power has ever been so open," says Gen. Paul Vericel, military commander of the test site. The comparison of French nuclear tests to the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima is "ludicrous," he adds. As for magazine covers depicting French tests as a mushroom cloud, "we stopped atmospheric tests 21 years ago," he says. "I call that misinformation."
French officials here, gearing up for their first new test on Mururoa, expected by Sept. 8, insist that this last series of tests is critical to preserving France's nuclear deterrent and worth the international outcry.
"We are only going to do what is necessary to allow our country to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty without danger to our national deterrent," says Jacques Bouchard, director of the French atomic energy agency (CEA), who briefed journalists at the test site.
But the heart of the message French officials want to get out is that their test site is not dangerous. Some 1,500 scientists and military and civilian personnel live and work here. "When we see a campaign that says France is endangering the environment, we can say it's simply wrong," Mr. Bouchard says.
French officials say they have monitored the health records of some 5,000 people directly involved in underground tests since 1975. Radiation received by Pacific populations over 30 years remained below the internationally recognized limits for the general population, they add.
Local doctor and antinuclear activist Jean Paul Theron contests the point. "They didn't begin keeping records until civilian doctors took over in the 1980s," he says. "They didn't keep the data to prove that there were no health effects in this region from atmospheric tests."
French officials concede this point, but add that the fault lies in Polynesian political authorities, who did not keep adequate records.
The French say new nuclear tests will be safe because the deep mountain of basalt into which test shafts are drilled will remain stable. After the nuclear device is detonated - the word bomb is never used - shock waves turn the lagoon waters white. Some 300 feet of rock around the explosion breaks up and vitrifies, trapping radioactive materials underground. "We can't imagine a scenario that would create a significant release," says Alain Barthoux, who directs nuclear tests for the CEA.
International teams that have visited the site confirm French claims that no radioactivity has leaked into the lagoon, but leave some margin for doubt as to whether that will remain the case.
A 1983 report by a team from the National Laboratory of Radiation of Christchurch, New Zealand, concludes that there is no evidence of leaks in the short term. But it adds that the hydrology of rocks in the area are such that "one could imagine migrations could be produced from the cavities around the explosion after a delay of 500 to 1,000 years."
For Tahiti, in the heart of Polynesia, the issue raises divisive political questions. Polynesian President Gaston Flosse and two major Tahitian dailies strongly support resumption of testing. The editor of the daily La Depeche de Tahiti produced a film to prove that birds, fish, and turtles thrived close to former test sites.
Stage for independence bid
For some antinuclear activists, protests against new French tests are a chance to win over public support for independence.
"As long as this country isn't independent, we'll always have nuclear tests," says Miguel Banner, head of the youth branch of Tavini Huiraatira, a Tahitian independence party. Tavini won 17 percent of the vote in June local elections. French Polynesia has had internal autonomy for 11 years, but France controls its defense and foreign policy.
The concern that frustrated young activists will resort to violence is real, and Tavini has set up a crisis team to cope. "We were afraid we were infiltrated by the police," he said. "We need to be very alert and prompt to avoid violence," says spokesman Marius Raapoto as he started a four-day hunger strike Sunday.
"We can't get a message through the local press," Mr. Theron says. "The French nuclear testing establishment has enormous clout here.
"Time is very short now," he adds. "Some among us are ready to break everything.... The only way is if the French president yields to the pressure of the French people themselves, through a referendum. We have to get our message to the French people, and we have to do it with respect." According to the last public opinion poll, some 60 percent of French oppose new tests.