President Jacques Chirac ordered an early end Monday to underground nuclear tests in the South Pacific, saying they had achieved their objective - giving France a “viable and modern defense.”
The last experimental blast, by far the most powerful since last summer, was detonated Saturday. Two days later, Chirac, denounced across the world for months, said he was calling “a definitive halt to French nuclear tests.”
“I know that the decision that I made last June may have provoked, in France and abroad, anxiety and emotion,” Chirac said on state-run television Monday night. “I know that nuclear weaponry may cause fear. But in an always-dangerous world, it acts for us as a weapon of dissuasion, a weapon in the service of peace.”
France began the tests with a Sept. 5 blast beneath Mururoa Atoll. That detonation, roughly the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, broke a three-year international moratorium on nuclear testing.
It made France the only nation besides China to test weapons of mass destruction since 1992. France insisted it had to resume the tests to check its nuclear arsenal and develop computer simulation that will make actual detonations unnecessary in the future.
The testing outraged Australia, New Zealand and other South Pacific countries and provoked rioting in Tahiti. But it did not elicit strong response from such major French allies as the United States, Britain and Germany.
The environmental group Greenpeace, which fought the tests with bitter denouncements and high-seas protests, expressed relief at Chirac’s decision.
“France has finally bowed to international pressure,” said Josh Handler, the group’s disarmament coordinator. Greenpeace said it would now press France to return protest ships seized over the past few months.
On Oct. 20, France, Britain and the United States jointly announced they would sign a treaty making the South Pacific a nuclear-free zone after the final French test.
In Washington, White House press secretary Mike McCurry predicted that Paris’ decision “will provide new momentum” to efforts to reach a test ban treaty. The United States had pressed France to abide by the global moratorium. Australia said Tuesday that France should pay compensation if scientists find that the blasts have damaged the South Pacific’s fragile environment.