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French Abandon Atolls

After 37 years the fifth French foreign military regiment is leaving the Mururoa and Fangataufla atolls used for nuclear testing between 1963 and 1996. However, the atolls future remains fragile. John Howard reports.

The commander of the French Forces in Polynesia, Admiral Jean Moulin, said the regiment would be dissolved in August and the three supporting naval frigates are also leaving.

Often the foe of seabourne anti-nuclear activists and the New Zealand frigate HMNZS Otago, the French frigates would be re-deployed to the Far East, the western Pacific and Southeast Asia.

The remaining Hao base, where the two Rainbow Warrior bombers were imprisoned briefly after transfer from a New Zealand prison, would also be permanently closed in August.

Admiral Moulin said this complex operation would involve some sadness for French civilian staff and residents at the village of Otepa who relied on military spending as a major source of revenue.

The situation at the atolls will remain tenuous for the next 20 years as several allegedly superficial fractures in the coral reef at Mururoa were detected last year by an international commission of geologists and specialists in hydrology.

Admiral Moulin said there were two possible scenarios. "Either the collapse of the outside coral reefs with the risk of creating a major tsunami or tidal wave, or an internal consolidation causing the fractures to disappear."

Senior French nuclear industry officials last year gave assurances that no long-term damage had been caused by the tests after a series of plant and soil samples were examined.

But it could not be established if written guarantees have been provided to remedy any future damage after the military leaves particularly if a tsunami occurs.

Fourty-one atmospheric blasts were conducted from 1966 with six giving off significant amounts of radioactive fallout. Tests were later moved underground.

Currently 20 soldiers monitor seismic activity and air quality on the atolls.

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