Greenpeace Protests French Nuclear Tests in the Mururoa Atoll

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Greenpeace Protests French Nuclear Tests in the Mururoa Atoll


By: Philippe Wojazer

Date: September 1, 1995

Source: Wojazer, Philippe. "Greenpeace Protests French Nuclear Tests in the Mururoa Atoll." AP Images.

About the Photographer: Philippe Wojazer is a contributor to the Associated Press, a worldwide news agency based in New York.


The first nuclear weapon was exploded by the United States in 1945. In 1960, France became the fourth country to explode an atomic bomb. Between 1960 and 1996, when it ceased testing permanently, France conducted 192 nuclear weapons test explosions, forty-one in the atmosphere and 134 underground.

French nuclear testing began in the Sahara Desert, but after Algeria won its independence in 1962, the French established the Centre d'Expérimentation du Pacifique (CEP, Pacific Experimentation Center) at Moruroa Atoll in French Polynesia.

In 1992, France announced a unilateral moratorium on nuclear weapons testing. In 1995, the new President of the French Republic, Jacques Chirac, announced that France would resume bomb testing at the CEP, with seven or eight explosions scheduled for 1995 and 1996. The governments of Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines condemned the proposed tests, as did environmental organizations. One objection was that weapons testing undermined negotiations for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which had begun in 1993. The international environmental group Greenpeace also objected to the environmental damage that, it argued, would be done even by an underground test.

For many years Greenpeace had been drawing attention to French nuclear testing by defying its ban on vessels within a 12-mile (19-kilometer) radius of the CEP. The French government resented Greenpeace's efforts and had even resorted to international terrorism to quash them; in 1985, the first Rainbow Warrior was sunk at anchor in Auckland harbor, New Zealand, by a bomb set off by agents of the French equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE, General Directorate for External Security). The sinking of the vessel, which had been scheduled to lead a flotilla of small vessels into the CEP exclusion zone to interfere with French nuclear testing plans, killed a Greenpeace photographer. Several agents involved in the operation were convicted in New Zealand courts but served light sentences and were promoted upon returning to France.

After France's 1995 announcement of resumed testing, the Rainbow Warrior II (launched in 1989) was sent to the Moruroa area to repeat the mission of the first Rainbow Warrior: protest, publicize, and, if possible, disrupt. Two ships, the Rainbow Warrior II and the Greenpeace, approached the edge of the CEP exclusion zone on September 1, 1995. The French warship Prairial asked the vessels to turn back but they did not. French commandos stormed the Greenpeace vessels with grappling hooks and tear gas and arrested all on board, including American Samoa's Delegate to the U.S. Congress, Eni Faleomavaega (1943–). Meanwhile, two Greenpeace divers in high-speed inflatable boats penetrated to the center of the zone and dived under an offshore platform at Moruroa. Greenpeace claimed that the platform was the one where the nuclear test was scheduled to be conducted, while France claimed that it was a different platform.

The Greenpeace and the Rainbow Warrior II, which had already been seized in a similar confrontation in July, 1995, were towed to Hao, an island 375 miles (604 kilometers) north of the CEP, and held there by the French Navy for five months.



See primary source image.


When France announced in 1995 that it intended to carry out a series of nuclear tests, it also said that when the tests were over it would sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which had been under negotiation since 1993. The CTBT was conceived as a successor to the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which forbade nuclear tests in the oceans, atmosphere, and space and was eventually signed by 113 nations, including the United States and the Soviet Union, but not China or France. The CTBT, in contrast, would ban all nuclear explosions, including underground tests.

The last French nuclear test occurred on January 26, 1996. In 1998, France ratified the CTBT. (The United States has refused to ratify the treaty.) France is the only country having nuclear weapons to have dismantled all its nuclear testing facilities. In partial fulfillment of its obligations under the CTBT, France has set up twenty-seven seismic monitoring stations to help detect possible test explosions. France also, in the late 1990s, began to dismantle its facilities for producing weapons-grade plutonium. France has also reduced the size of its nuclear arsenal, but still maintains a number of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, including a fleet of four nuclear submarines carrying nuclear-armed missiles.



Weyler, Rex. Greenpeace: How a Group of Journalists, Ecologists, and Visionaries Changed the World. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2004.


Danielsson, Bengt. "Poisoned Pacific: The Legacy of French Nuclear Testing." The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 46, 2 (1990): 22–31.

Shenon, Philip. "France Seizes 2 Ships Owned by Greenpeace." The New York Times (September 2, 1995).

_______"French Navy Seizes a Third Ship At Site of Planned Nuclear Tests." The New York Times (September 4, 1995).

Web sites

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization. May 16, 2006. <> (accessed May 25, 2006). "Nuclear Weapons: France." April 28, 2005. < france/nuke.htm> (accessed May 25, 2006).

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Greenpeace Protests French Nuclear Tests in the Mururoa Atoll

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