This month, France marks the 60th anniversary of nuclear weapons tests that made the country one of the world’s first nuclear powers. But critics claim more than 30 years of testing in Algeria and French Polynesia left many suffering from the effects of harmful radiation.
On February 13, 1960, France held its first nuclear test in Algeria’s southern Sahara desert. "Hurray for France,” then-French President Charles de Gaulle wrote at the time.
But Jean-Claude Hervieux has other memories. He joined the French testing efforts in Algeria as an electrician. He remembers a nuclear test in 1962 that did not go according to plan.
Radioactive dust and rock escaped from underground. Hervieux and others observing the testing ran for shelter. Two French ministers were among them. The group washed themselves in a military housing area to decontaminate.
France held more than 200 nuclear tests until a later president, Jacques Chirac, ended testing in 1996. Most tests took place in French Polynesia. But 17 took place in Algeria between 1960 and 1966, ending four years after Algeria’s independence from France.
Brahim Oumansour is a North Africa expert at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. He said, “It’s part of the whole issue of decolonization and Algerians in general asking for recognition of colonization crimes.” He added that official recognition and financial compensation for the Algerian tests could cost millions of dollars.
Hervieux spent 10 years working on nuclear test areas in Algeria and later French Polynesia. Now 80 and living in France’s Lyon area, he says he is physically fine. But he used to receive some questionable radioactive testing results from the French government.
Roland Desbordes is a former French physicist and spokesman for an independent French atomic safety research group called CRIIRAD. He has visited the Algerian test areas.
Desbordes said he discovered very high radiation levels in some places. He believes the French government should release important information about the explosions. But he also blames Algerian officials for failing to correctly secure the desert testing areas.
France’s nuclear compensation commission, CIVEN, said more than 1,600 claims have been filed under a 2010 French law that finally recognized health problems related to the testing.
Only about one-third have met the requirements needed to receive financial benefits. The requirements include about 24 possible radiation-related cancers. Almost all the claims came from France and French Polynesia. Of the 51 claims from Algeria, only one has been compensated.
CIVEN Director Ludovic Gerin said the commission can judge only the Algerian claims it receives. He said the sicknesses described in the few claims that did come in did not match the requirements for compensation. He added the commission could not actively go out and search for other victims.
I’m Jonathan Evans.
Lisa Bryant reported this story for VOA News. Jonathan Evans adapted it for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.
Words in This Story
compensation – n. something that is done or given to make up for damage, trouble, etc.
decontaminate – v. to remove dirty or dangerous substances such as radioactive material from a person, thing, place, etc.
hurray – interj. used to express joy, approval, or encouragement
radioactive – adj. having or producing a powerful and dangerous form of energy called radiation