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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An End to Nuclear Tests

Despite angry protests in many countries over France's plan to resume nuclear testing in the South Pacific, the imperturbable French President Jacques Chirac has repeated that the scheme is irrevocable: Between September and next May, France will conduct eight underground tests. French plans to launch a Helios 1A military reconnaissance satellite, which would be able to monitor all vessels in the vicinity of the test site as well as to dispatch a number of combat ships to block access to the site, are further evidence that Paris is entirely committed to the tests.


Speaking at a televised press conference on Bastille Day, Chirac defended his decision to resume testing by stressing that for the last 50 years, global peace had depended on nuclear deterrence. To his mind, the experiments in the South Pacific will ensure that the detonators on French nuclear warheads are in good working condition. Chirac also tried to assure his audience that the tests would not cause any pollution in the area around Mururoa Atoll. All of these arguments, though, are simply too good to be true.


As for nuclear deterrence, it would be more accurate to say that global peace for the last half century rested on the understanding among the leaders of the five declared nuclear powers that weapons cannot ever be used, due to their devastating power and lethal backfire effect even for the initial attacker. If the Chernobyl disaster poisoned 70 percent of the territory of Belarus and affected one-third of its population, what might just one 150 to 300 kiloton nuclear missile do, to say nothing about a one-megaton nuclear bomb? Inasmuch as the world is convinced that these weapons will never be used, then why test them at all?


Experts in various countries also point out that Chirac's assertion that resumption of atomic testing is intended to enable the French military to check whether its nuclear weapons are reliable seems unconvincing. After more than four years of abstaining from nuclear testing, France now intends to test some new-generation weapons, a special "mini" warhead that releases an electromagnetic pulse capable of disabling enemy electronics and a variable-yield warhead for a new type of air- and sea-launched missile.


The formula that opening a new round of nuclear tests will be used to verify the reliability of the existing warheads seems to be controversial, too. The fact that France has observed a moratorium on nuclear testing for more than four years and has managed to survive without assurances of the safety, security and reliability of its nuclear "deterrent" casts further doubt on the argument that testing is now somehow necessary for France's national security.


French claims that the planned tests will not do any harm to the environment are the most dubious of all. Even if the nuclear device is to be exploded in a deep shaft drilled into volcanic rock under the lagoon of the V-shaped coral atoll, it may well crack the rock and pollute the ocean with escaping radioactive materials and gases. Underwater rocks of the atoll have already been shaken by many nuclear blasts over the last 20 years. Previous radioactive leakages prompted Greenpeace to describe a report on radioactivity levels in French Polynesia prepared by French authorities to allay fears about the new tests as "hasty and limited" and "a cruel joke."


By resuming its nuclear testing program, Paris not only strongly humiliated and deeply offended Polynesians and many others who anticipate its negative consequences. France's insistence on nuclear testing in the South Pacific may also echo across test sites in the United States and Russia as well.


In the United States, some senior Pentagon officials have already expressed their eagerness to relax U.S. policies on nuclear testing, arguing, like the French, that such experiments are necessary "to maintain the integrity and reliability" of the U.S. nuclear arsenals which, they claim, require continuous testing and modernization.


Many analysts believe that if the United States resumes testing, Russia -- which has reacted strongly against nuclear tests conducted by China and against Chirac's plans -- will follow suit by breaking its unilateral moratorium that has held since October 1990.


While Paris is just preparing to reopen its "nuclear lab" in the Pacific, China has already exploded its nuclear devices -- paradoxically within 48 hours of the completion last May of an international conference that decided to extend indefinitely the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. That conference also unveiled a program of action on nuclear disarmament in which the nuclear powers pledged to exert systematic efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating them altogether. The resumption of nuclear tests by China and France may spark a chain reaction that could give the nuclear-arms race renewed momentum.


START II ratification could be derailed and the now real chances to dismantle excessive nuclear arms may vanish. In such an atmosphere, nuclear "have-nots" will do their utmost to acquire nuclear weapons. A new arms race will block the way to signing a Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, thus dashing hopes for it that are much brighter now than they have been for decades. The nonproliferation regime to which France and China are committed in words will be undermined by their deeds.


Throughout the Cold War, nuclear testing was considered "a disagreeable necessity," as Britain's Daily Telegraph once observed. Now though, when the period of constant, debilitating confrontation between East and West is (or could be) over, it is clear that the irreversible, unconditional and total cessation of all nuclear testing is, although far more agreeable, no less of a necessity.





Vladimir Kozin is an overseas member of the Royal College of Defense Studies (London). He contributed this comment, which expresses only his opinions, to The Moscow Times.