The radioactive spread from French nuclear tests in Algeria in the 1960s was much larger that the French army admitted at the time, stretching across all of West Africa and up to southern Europe, according to recently declassified documents.
The documents were released in 2013 following appeals from military veterans who say their current ill health is linked to exposure to dangerous levels of radiation.
One map shows that 13 days after France detonated its first nuclear device - "Gerboise Bleue" (Blue Jerboa) - in February 1960, radioactive particles ranged from the Central African Republic to Sicily and southern Spain.
Gerboise Bleue, more than three times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, exploded in the sky above the Sahara Desert in southern Algeria. The test took place at the height of the former French colony’s independence struggle.
At the time, the French military authorities said the fallout from the explosion was limited to the desert and that radiation levels were “generally low”.
But associations representing military veterans of France’s nuclear tests in the 1960s and 1970s are demanding that the government admits it knew that the fallout from Saharan tests was dangerous.
“In the 1960s the norms governing acceptable levels of radiation were much less strict than they are now,” said Bruno Barillot, an expert in nuclear tests who is representing veterans’ groups.
“And the medical evidence we have now shows clearly that exposure to this radiation can set off serious illnesses more than three decades later,” he told French daily Le Parisien.
Government 'selective' in documents release
Barillot added that the declassified documents showed that the army at the time was aware that even the 1960s safety levels were largely surpassed and that significant quantities of airborne radioactive particles, particularly iodine 131 and caesium 137, could have been inhaled by large numbers of people in north Africa.
But he also complained that the government had been extremely selective in terms of what documents to release.
Proof that France ignored or tried to hide the health effects of its nuclear testing could be extremely problematic for the French government.
There are already a number of civil cases lodged by Algerians against the French state.
And if it can be demonstrated that the fallout of the bomb tests spread dangerous levels radiation over large parts of North Africa, many more demands for compensation from individuals and from national governments could be in the pipeline.
Date created : 2014-02-14