By Eric Teniola
THESE Algerians were not properly warned of their danger after France’s misgoverned nuclear bomb-testing campaign of the early 1960s, which vitrified vast tracts of desert with heat and plutonium and left a legacy of uncontained radiation that is still crippling inhabitants. Estimates of the number of Algerians affected by testing range from 27,000 – cited by the French Ministry of Defence – to 60,000, the figure given by Abdul Kadhim al-Aboudi, an Algerian professor of nuclear physics.
For many who lived in Reggane the week before February 13, 1960, the only record of their radiation was captured by a necklace. When French troops visited populations the day before Gerboise Bleue, they issued dosimeters on chains to be worn around the neck. A few days later, the troops returned. They collected the necklaces, wrote down who wore them and left, keeping the data for their analyses but never returning to let residents know of the invisible danger that would soon afflict them.
Hamadi, who has lived within 50 miles of France’s above ground blast sites since before the tests, told Al Jazeera he was completely unaware of any French compensation plan. “The French are our brothers … But we just want the protection we need,” he said. “We need proper communication, medical evaluations, protections and payment for the damages. No one has helped us.”
Upon completion of the Gerboise test series, France switched to underground testing at another site in the Algerian Sahara, named In Ecker, where it conducted a further 13 nuclear tests until 1967. Subsequent French nuclear testing was conducted at French Polynesian atolls in the South Pacific, site of atmospheric thermonuclear tests, starting with the 2.6 megaton Canopus test in August 1968. “I was wearing shorts. We were made to lie face down on the ground, eyes closed and arms folded, and not watch the flash, but immediately afterwards we had to get up with an apparatus round our necks and measure and photograph the impact,” an observer said.
The French government had always maintained that its nuclear operations were carried out as safely as possible. Yet a confidential military report, first obtained by the French newspaper Le Parisien in 2010, indicated that soldiers had been used as “guinea pigs” to study the effects of radiation on human health. According to the report, a 1961 nuclear test involved military personnel advancing on foot and in trucks to within a few hundred metres of the epicentre of a nuclear blast less than an hour after detonation.
A 2008 survey conducted by the French nuclear test veterans’ association Aven showed that 35 percent of the polled veterans had one or more types of cancer and one in five had become infertile. According to Algerian scientist Kathum El-Abodi, nuclear testing in Algeria also resulted in environmental degradation, such as the movement of sand dunes in areas already affected by wind erosion. Radiation furthermore led to a decline in livestock and biodiversity, including the disappearance of a number of migratory and endemic reptiles and birds, says El-Abodi.
France conducted the last of its 210 nuclear tests on January 27, 1996 in French Polynesia. Especially the final French testing series – carried out during the negotiations of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, CTBT, in Geneva – provoked international protests, including boycotts of French products. Later that year, France was one of the first countries to sign the CTBT, subsequently ratifying it on April 6, 1998. France also closed and dismantled all its test sites – the only Nuclear Weapon State to date that has done so. In 2009, the French Senate passed a bill acknowledging the impact of its nuclear testing programme and providing a first compensation scheme for civilian and military veterans.
After the independence of Algeria on July 5, 1962, following the March 19, 1962 Evian agreements, the French military moved the test site to another location in the Algerian Sahara, around 150 km north of Tamnarasset, near the village of In Eker. Underground nuclear explosion testing was performed in drifts in the Taourirt Tan Afella Mountain, one of the granite Hoggar Mountains. The Evian agreements included a secret article which stated that “Algeria concede[s]… to France the use of certain air bases, terrains, sites and military installations which are necessary to it [France]” during five years.
The C.S.E.M. was, therefore, replaced by the Centre d’Expérimentations Militaires des Oasis (“Military Experiments Centre of the Oasis”) underground nuclear testing facility. A total of 13 underground nuclear tests were carried out at the In Eker site from November 7 1961 to February 16, 1966. By July 1, 1967, all French facilities were evacuated. An accident happened on May 1, 1962, during the “Béryl” test, four times more powerful than Hiroshima and designed as an underground shaft test. Due to improper sealing of the shaft, radioactive rock and dust were released into the atmosphere.
Nine soldiers of the 621st Groupe d’Armes Spéciales unit were heavily contaminated by radiation. The soldiers were exposed to as much as 600 mSv. The Minister of Armed Forces, Pierre Messmer, and the Minister of Research, Gaston Palewski, were present. As many as 100 additional personnel, including officials, soldiers and Algerian workers were exposed to lower levels of radiation, estimated at about 50 mSv, when the radioactive cloud produced by the blast passed over the command post, due to an unexpected change in wind direction.
They escaped as they could, often without wearing any protection. Palewski died in 1984 of leukemia, which he always attributed to the Béryl incident. In 2006, Bruno Barillot, specialist of nuclear tests, measured 93 microsieverts by hour of gamma ray at the site, equivalent to one per cent of the official admissible yearly dose. The incident was documented in the 2006 docudrama “Vive La Bombe!
The test provoked swift condemnation from Japan, which has also protested in the past against tests carried out by the United States, Britain and the USSR. All three nations agreed two years ago to cease test explosions but France would not be bound by such an agreement…Today, Moscow joined Japan in condemning the test saying it was a serious blow to any hope of disarmament and against the wishes of the United Nations. Moscow Radio described the act as “a monstrous challenge to world public opinion”….Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and Ghana have also expressed outrage at France’s action and its timing – on the eve of the African summit in Casablanca.
In Cairo, the deputy secretary general of the Arab League, El Dardiri Ismail, called for all Arab nations to break off political and economic links with France….Today’s bomb contained plutonium and had an explosive force equal to 10,000 to 14,000 tonnes of TNT – half as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. It was exploded at the top of a steel tower. Military equipment, dummies and caged rats and mice were positioned in the area of the blast were monitored during and after the explosion.
It was this action by France that forced the government of Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa to break diplomatic relations with France in 1961. As a retaliation, France recognized Biafra during the civil war. If the fallout from France testing their atomic bomb in Algeria in 1960 could lead to the death of many people, let us imagine, what Great Britain, France, China, North Korea, Israel, India, Pakistan, Japan and other world powers that have atomic bombs have developed since 1960. Gradually it is becoming clear that mankind has invented weapons of destruction. The same science that made our lives longer and better is the same science that will delete our lives eventually. Man is gradually becoming a victim of his own inventions.