Algeria's agony lives on, decades after French nuclear tests

Algeria's agony lives on, decades after French nuclear tests
4 min read
16 February, 2015
Feature: As Algeria marks the 55th anniversary of France's first nuclear test, Paris has only recently agreed to pay compensation for those affected.
French officials watch a nuclear test in Raggane, southern Algeria, in the 1960s [AFP/Getty]
On February 13 every year, Algerians remember the first nuclear test the French conducted on Algerian soil on that day in 1960. Many Algerians are still suffering from the radioactive legacy they inherited from their former colonial master.

Today, radiation is still a serious problem in the area, and stands witness to a historical crime.

Generations of the Kchaoui family in the city of Reggane have suffered from radiation-linked ailments since that day, and several children born into the family have suffered from radiation-linked birth defects.

France faces up to shame of Algerian nuclear tests. Read more here

Al-Araby al-Jadeed
spoke to Abdul-Kadir Kchaoui, who was attending a conference in Algiers on the French nuclear tests in the country. He said that five of his relatives had birth defects and suffer from diseases linked to nuclear radiation in Reggane, the area where the tests were conducted.

His family lives far from ground zero, an area that has long been closed off by the Algerian authorities. But dust carried from the desert region by sandstorms is contaminated with radiation, and has not only harmed humans in the area but also livestock and wildlife and has polluted crops and water.

His family has not been able to get any assistance to get treatment, despite the evidence they have presented to the Algerian and French authorities.

The Kchaoui family is not alone. There are thousands of others who have been affected by France's nuclear experiments in Algeria.

Watch archive footage from one

of the nuclear tests in Reggane

Seventeen tests in seven years

Between 1960 and 1966, the French authorities conducted 17 nuclear tests in Algeria.

At the time, the French government was seeking to become a member with the select club of nuclear-armed nations.

The test in Reggane in February 1960, known by the code name Gerboise Bleue ["Blue Jerboa"] was the largest, and announced to the world that France was a nuclear power. But that achievement came at the expense of the region's people and its environment.

France was not concerned by the deadly radiation its tests left behind. For a start, the armed confrontation with the Algerian Liberation Army at the time was going badly for France, with widespread international support for decolonisation and pressure on Paris to recognise the Algerian people's right to self-determination.

In addition to birth defects, cancer rates have spiked among Algerians living in the area over the half century since the French nuclear tests.

Number of victims disputed

According to experts who have studied the effects of the tests on the area, more than 42,000 Algerians were affected by the nuclear explosions. The French Ministry of Defence says only around 27,000 people were affected by the tests - including French military forces present and French technicians - and the residents of the affected areas in Reggane and Tamanrasset in southern Algeria.

Abdul Kadhim al-Aboudi, professor of nuclear physics at the University of Oran in western Algeria and a member of the Commission for the Protection of Memory in Algeria, estimates the number of victims at 60,000.

Ammar Mansouri, a researcher in nuclear engineering, said the French tests were among the worst crimes committed by France in the colonial history of Algeria: "The negative effects do not concern Algeria alone, but all of Africa as well, especially the countries bordering the south of Algeria where the tests were carried out."

Mansouri noted many cancers in people living in southern Algeria were linked to the effects of the nuclear tests, and said this required pressure on France for it to assume its responsibilities. He stressed that France was responsible under international law for the damage resulting from its actions.

France cannot deny its responsibility for its colonial-era crimes.
- Mohiuddin Mohammad, University of Algiers

This opinion was echoed by Mohiuddin Mohammad, law professor at the University of Algiers.

He said the French nuclear experiments were at least five times as powerful as the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan during the Second World War, and stressed that France was liable for the suffering it caused to the people of the south.

"France cannot deny its responsibility for its colonial-era crimes, especially as many French generals admitted to what happened in their personal memoirs," he added.

France did not vacate the facilities in which it conducted the nuclear tests until 1967. Even when it did leave, France never shared the location of the nuclear waste it had buried in the area with the Algerians, and did little to clean up the fallout.

For decades, the Algerian government was not able to obtain any assistance or official apology from France, and victims could not obtain compensation.

In 2010, France passed a law recognising the right of the victims to obtain compensation. However, it placed tough conditions on the victims, including the provision of strict medical proof that birth defects and diseases they claimed compensation for were linked to nuclear waste or radiation.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.