ONE of the top directors of the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), Gerard Martin, waved his arm over the expanse of dark grey rock on the remote island of Mururoa in French Polynesia on which a group of journalists stood. 'This is the place that Greenpeace said was the most contaminated area in the South Pacific,' he said. 'As you can see, it's not.' The comment from one of the scientists in charge of monitoring the radioactive contamination of workers, flora and fauna at the site was patently absurd. You cannot see, feel, taste or smell radioactive contamination. Aside from keeling over immediately, we had no idea how dangerous it was. Ironically, the dark coral fused into a hard surface that swept in a flat expanse towards the blue sea did not look healthy, compared with the white pieces of coral, sand beaches, coconut palms and lush greenery elsewhere on the atoll. The site was used for five 'safety' tests between 1966 and 1974, during the time of atmospheric bomb tests. The process scattered radioactive particles such as plutonium - which remains radioactive for thousands of years - over a wide area. 'Now the radioactive level is about one million Becquerels per square metre' - which is roughly equivalent to the radiation given out naturally by 200 people, or 100 times the natural level of radiation in air, and is quite acceptable, said Mr Martin. French scientists seem disarmingly frank about the radioactivity at Mururoa Atoll - a ribbon of mostly white coral encircling a brilliant blue lake in the crater of a sunken volcano. Inside the volcano, more than 130 huge underground blasts have created caverns full of radioactive elements fused with cracked rock hundreds of metres down. Along with this and the now 'safe' decontaminated area, there are several kilos of plutonium in the sediment of the lagoon, washed from the safety test site during a cyclone in 1981. Outside scientists have also found radioactive gases produced by leakage when the atomic boffins were taking samples from the blast core immediately after an explosion. But it is all safe now, the French say. The lagoon plutonium is bound to the sediment and will not move; the amount that will dissolve is inconsequential and leakage of radioactive gases into the air during sampling is a minor problem. Attempts by the French to appease a hostile world protesting against the eight planned tests from September to May led to the visit last week by more than 40 journalists from 17 Pacific countries and Britain. The scientists in charge gave out reams of information, led reporters to stand over open former test shafts and proudly showed off flocks of birds on neighbouring Fangataufa Atoll, where the biggest atmospheric tests were conducted. Legionnaires and General Paul Vericel - overall director of the Centre of Nuclear Experimentation (CEP) - swam in the lagoon and said what a great place it was, with sports facilities, cinema and all the attractions of a modest holiday home. The frankness extended to confirming a long-standing rumour: the people of nearby Tureia island were evacuated the day before an atmospheric test in the 60s because of fears that the wind would blow debris over them. They were allowed back a few days later when the radioactivity level had fallen to normal, said Alain Barthoux, director of the test division. Yet this is the military industry, based on secrets. Nuclear weapons testing worldwide has a shameful history of contaminated land, botched clean-ups and sick people. The strong suspicion was that for every secret released, the French must be keeping back 10 more. Scientists worldwide, and four missions allowed in to study the atoll, have cast doubt on the ability of the volcano to contain the radioactivity produced by the blasts. But the CEA claims the solid basalt rock, in which the bombs are fired up to 1,000 metres down, will remain structurally sound for thousands of years. 'The French are always shifting their ground,' said Professor Mike O'Sullivan, head of engineering science at Auckland University and a geothermal physicist. His studies suggest the fracture caverns formed by the blast would be hundreds of metres tall, rather than the French claim of tens of metres. That could lead to much quicker seepage. 'I'm fairly certain it's leaking a lot more than the French claim, and if it's not leaking now it soon will be,' he said. The French also have a remarkable explanation for why Commander Jacques Cousteau's 1988 mission found small amounts of short-lived caesium-134 in the lagoon - which indicates leakage from the test shafts. Since the French found none of the element, Mr Cousteau's samples must have been contaminated from the recent Chernobyl fall-out during transport back to Europe, Mr Barthoux said. But there are other ways the French argument, like the volcano, seems shot full of holes. There was the case of a plane used during one of three aerial tests to study the radioactive cloud, which was rumoured to have been so contaminated it was cut up and dumped in the lagoon. Mr Barthoux, who was so clear on other details of his CEA work spanning the whole testing period since 1966, had forgotten. 'If it happened,' he said, the plane would have been decontaminated, put in boxes and buried. On the health statistics, Mr Barthoux, who was in charge of radiation protection during the earlier years, including the decontamination of the safety test area, was emphatic that 'absolutely nobody' has ever been exposed to a dose above the limit for nuclear workers and only five people received more of a dose than the limit for the general public. Yet the doctors who took samples of blood, urine and did six-monthly check-ups on every worker since 1966, claim not to have collated their figures to check for cancer or illness patterns. That work was only now being done by the UN, they said. 'I was personally in charge of radiation protection during the atmospheric tests. If you say people were irradiated you're saying I allowed that. You're saying I broke the law,' said Mr Barthoux. 'All that was said in those papers [a petition by 54 former workers alleging health effects from radiation] was absolutely wrong.' Most locals do not believe all is well. In Tahiti, everyone has a story of someone who died mysteriously, of workers who cannot have children or whose kids are handicapped. 'Ask them why five of my children died, one of blisters, three from miscarriages and one from leukaemia,' said Edwin Haoa, one of the petitioners and a former security agent at the site. 'I hate the French for what they did.' Local doctor Dr Jean-Paul Theron said the most damning indictment was that there were no known statistics for any of the French Polynesian population before 1985, when every doctor in the territory was employed by the military 'mafia'. 'Everyone who came here was the best, including the doctors,' he said. 'How can you imagine that these people doing very high research could 'forget' to compile data on the health of the people they saw? And if they did, but do not make the figures public, then they must have something to hide.' If no systematic studies were done for all the population, particularly those at risk on nearby islands, that was insulting, he said. 'They studied the fish and not the humans? That's crazy.' Doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), who visited French Polynesia early last month, agreed that studies of the environment and food rather than people was not enough to say no one had been contaminated. In their report released yesterday the group said even cancer statistics collected since 1985 were only 60 per cent complete and there were no statistics available on congenital defects. Nor was there follow-up of populations at risk on Tereia or the Gambier Islands to the south-east, both of which were 'almost certainly exposed' to atmospheric fall-out. They accused the authorities of 'not fulfilling their ethical responsibilities' towards the potentially exposed public and their workers. 'MSF is alarmed by the lack of concern on the part of the French authorities for the medical effects on the population exposed,' the report said. Dr Theron was sure some cancers he treated among site workers were due to the radiation. But more important, he said, was the effect on the population of being paid high salaries to develop a weapon of destruction. 'The industry that gives them life is an industry of death,' he said. 'That produces a collective mental disorder. When you can't resolve the dilemma you become mad.' The result was showing up in the huge number of children becoming disturbed due to abuse or lack of care in a society previously caring and family-oriented. The people had become addicted to the money, he said. Restarting the tests after a three-year moratorium was like putting an addict back on heroin halfway through detoxification. 'It's a crime to give drugs to a person who has been detoxified,' he said. Dr Peter Wills, an anti-nuclear activist at Auckland University, said the French wanted to develop the low-yield 'wonder weapon', whose use could be justified because it would devastate only a small area. He said: 'I take a zero bottom line. They say the small hazard they create in the South Pacific is justified for the sake of the glory of France. 'I say no hazard is justified in the South Pacific.' Territorial President Gaston Flosse has defended his agreement to allow the tests in return for French cash that will generate jobs for the 15,000 to 20,000 young unemployed Polynesians in a society that has little to offer except tourism. But detractors have argued most of the profit returns to France and jobs were only created in offices in Tahiti that supported the tests. Ultimately, Polynesians say they have no interest in seeing France build up or keep its nuclear weapons arsenal - as it claims it must - on their soil. The argument that the tests should be done in France is unsatisfactorily answered. 'This is France,' CEA members are fond of saying. 'This is not France, this is Polynesia, always Polynesia,' countered Tahitian, Noroa Yoani, echoing the sentiments of many young locals. 'We want peace, no more bombs.'