France set off a nuclear test blast Saturday at Fangataufa Atoll in the South Pacific, the sixth and possibly the last in a series of atomic tests that has sparked worldwide protests.
France’s Defense Ministry announced that the blast had taken place at 10:30 p.m. French time (1:30 p.m. PST) at the atoll, which is approximately 750 miles southeast of Tahiti.
“The energy released by the blast was less than 120 kilotons. This test was carried out in order to guarantee the safety and reliability of weapons in the future,” the ministry said in a statement.
Saturday’s test was the sixth in a series that began last September, when France broke a three-year moratorium. The blasts, conducted in two remote atolls in French Polynesia, prompted an international outcry by environmental groups and governments in the region.
Following those protests, the French government said it would scale back what was initially planned as an eight-part series to six tests.
However, the government has refused to say exactly how many tests it will conduct. Defense Minister Charles Millon has said only that the last of the tests will come by the end of February.
The fifth was on Dec. 27.
Of the tests conducted so far, Saturday’s was the most powerful, according to the French statement. However, New Zealand’s Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences estimated the yield of the blast at 45 kilotons - well below France’s estimate of 120 kilotons.
France has promised to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by May, as well as the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
It insists the tests are needed to ensure the viability of its independent nuclear force and to develop simulation technology making further testing unnecessary.
In December, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yves Doutriaux said that after France completes its series, a panel from the International Atomic Energy Agency would be able to check the atolls for any radiation contamination.
Australian and New Zealand scientists said they had monitored Saturday’s blast on seismological equipment but have yet to determine the yield of the explosion.
The two countries, as well as tiny island-states in the region, say the tests could harm the fragile environment of the South Pacific.