French nuclear tests in the Maghreb 60 years on

Delayed fallout in Algeria

Decades after the first French nuclear test in Algeria, thousands of victims are still waiting for compensation. To date only 51 claims have been filed under French legislation introduced ten years ago – and only one Algerian compensated. By Elizabeth Bryant

Jean-Claude Hervieux still remembers joining a crowd of soldiers and high-level officials in Algeria's Sahara desert to witness one of France's first nuclear tests. Things didn't go exactly as planned.

Instead of being contained underground, radioactive dust and rock escaped into the atmosphere. Everyone ran, including two French ministers. At military barracks, the group showered and had their radiation levels checked as a crude means of decontamination. "You don't see nude ministers very often," Hervieux chuckled.

But as France marks the 60th anniversary of its first nuclear test – near Algeria's border with Mauritania, on February 13, 1960 – there is not much to laugh about. Critics have long claimed more than three decades of nuclear testing may have left many victims, first in Algeria and later in French Polynesia, where the bulk of testing took place.

But so far, just a few hundred have been compensated, including one single Algerian. And as key nuclear testing anniversaries tick by, the unresolved fallout of the nuclear explosions has also fed into long-standing tensions between Paris and its former colony.

General Jean Thiry presse the button that triggered the explosion of the third atomic bomb test in the Sahara (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
The contamination continues: many testing sites in Algeria are only fenced off by barbed wire, at best. "I saw radiation levels emitted from minerals, rocks vitrified by the bombs' heat, which was colossal," said retired French physicist Roland Desbordes, who has visited the sites. "These aren't sites buried in the corner of the desert – they are frequented by Algerian nomads." The latter sift through the detritus, seeking copper and other valuable scrap metal
Post-colonial legacy
 
"It is part of the whole issue of de-colonisation, and of Algerians asking for French recognition of crimes committed" as a colonial power, said Brahim Oumansour, North African analyst for the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations. For France, he added, doing so might mean "millions of euros of financial compensation".
 
Such issues are off the French government's current public radar. A major nuclear policy speech last week by President Emmanuel Macron made no mention of them. France's compensation commission says it has responded to claims that meet criteria set out by law. The French Defence Ministry and Algerian authorities did not respond to questions about the tests.
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