Lobsters meet legionnaires at nuclear lagoon

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 July, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 July, 1995, 12:00am

THE view follows groves of coconut palms over a wide, turquoise sea. Then you approach a white, encircling coral reef where, in a few weeks the French will explode a 150-kilotonne nuclear bomb.

There is little sign of activity on this 22 kilometre by 10 kilometre extinct volcano covered in coral.

'This is like a holiday all the time,' shouts a Foreign Legionnaire as he dives into the windblown waves. For him, maybe it is - he is from the former Yugoslavia.

The holes running several hundred metres through the rock of the atoll, where the bombs will be exploded, were drilled in 1992 - before France temporarily stopped the tests.

Oil platforms, huge towers covered in satellite dishes and warships clutter the sea.

The lagoon - the area of water that fills the sunken centre of the volcano under which the tests will be performed - is calm. The small bungalows which house the 2,000 workers look like a mobile home park.

The army and the scientific research agency in charge of the tests, the Atomic Energy Commission, insist they will have no effect on the environment or the workers.

No one has ever received a dose of radiation above the allowed yearly limit for atomic workers, says test division director, Alain Barthoux.

Of 5,000 workers employed since 1975, when underground tests started, 'a few dozen' were exposed to some radiation while cleaning areas contaminated by atmospheric tests.

Only five people suffered doses higher than the five milliSieverts allowed yearly for the general public.

During the first test in September, the huge bomb detonated at the base of the drill shaft in the basalt will melt the rock around it, causing rock for tens of metres above to collapse into the hole. The only sign of the firing will be the white foaming of the sea above as a seismic wave erupts from the surface.

Claims the atoll could disintegrate are nonsense, says Mr Barthoux.

'We know what the future of this very strong mountain will be,' he says. 'One million years later it will be the same mountain.' He explains that water can diffuse through the rock to reach the radioactivity, but the process is so slow the radioactive elements will have broken down by the time the water reaches them.

He admits the upper coral layer has subsided because of the 170 or so tests already performed, but says subsidence has not affected the rock beneath, which still envelops the radioactivity.

'It's true there's plutonium in the lagoon,' he adds. But certainly not enough to cause harm, he says as he writes on a board a row of zeros after a decimal point to show the radiation emitted and compares it with the natural level in the sea, millions of times greater.

Similarly any radioactivity in the clams and lobsters that live at the atoll is tiny - between three and eight Becquerels per kilogram. If you don't like that, consider your own body radiation level - about 100 Bq per kg.

Any boats trying to break the 12-mile exclusion zone will be stopped by any means necessary, warns General Paul Vericel, director of the nuclear experimentation centre.

But there will be no aggression and there would be no danger even if the boats entered the lagoon during the tests.

After talking to the visiting reporters, the French officials offer dinner with wine, served by smiling Legionnaires. And today, there is also the offer of a swim in the lagoon, with General Vericel.