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Questions, Scars Remain as France Marks 60 Years Since Nuclear Tests

FILE - A view of ground zero at the French nuclear tests' site in In-Ekker near Ain Maguel, 170 km (106 miles) from the southern Algerian town of Tamanrasset, Feb. 16, 2007.

France marks the 60th anniversary of nuclear weapons tests that turned it into one of the world’s first nuclear powers. That was at the height of the Cold War. But critics claim more than three decades of testing — first in Algeria and later French Polynesia — left many scars, including victims who remain uncompensated.

On February 13, 1960, France conducted 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 recalls another nuclear test, in 1962, which didn’t go according to plan.

Radioactive dust and rock escaped from underground. Hervieux and others witnessing the testing ran for cover. Two French ministers were among them. The group showered in military barracks to decontaminate. He laughs because it wasn’t often French ministers are seen in the buff.

A danger sign is seen at a French nuclear test site in In-Ekker, near Ain Meguel in southern Algeria, Feb. 25, 2010.
A danger sign is seen at a French nuclear test site in In-Ekker, near Ain Meguel in southern Algeria, Feb. 25, 2010.

France ended up conducting more than 200 nuclear tests until a later president, Jacques Chirac, ended them in 1996. Most took place in French Polynesia. But 17 took place in Algeria between 1960 and 1966, ending four years after Algeria’s independence from France.

"It’s part of the whole issue of decolonization and Algerians in general asking for recognition of colonization crimes,” said Brahim Oumansour, a North Africa analyst at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. He said that proper recognition and financial compensation for the Algerian tests could cost millions of dollars.

Hervieux spent a decade working on nuclear test sites in Algeria and later French Polynesia. Now 80 and living in France’s Lyon area, he says he’s physically fine — although he used to get 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’s visited the Algerian test sites.

Desbordes said he detected radiation levels in some places that were colossal. Algerian nomads visited the sites to collect material left by the French. He believes the French government should declassify key information about the explosions. But he also blames Algerian authorities for failing to properly seal the desert sites.

France’s nuclear compensation commission, CIVEN, said more than 1,600 claims have been filed under a 2010 French law that finally acknowledged health problems related to the testing.

Only about one-third have met compensation criteria that include about two dozen possible radiation-related cancers. Almost all the claims came from France and its overseas territory. Of the 51 claims from Algeria, only one has been compensated.

CIVEN Director Ludovic Gerin said the commission can only judge the Algerian claims it receives. He said the sicknesses described in the few that did come in didn’t match compensation criteria. And he said the commission couldn't actively go out and search for other victims.