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French nuclear test victims see hope in cancer link finding

Victims of French nuclear tests say a report establishing a link between exposure to radiation and cases of cancer may prove decisive in their lengthy battle for compensation.

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Thanks to a landmark medical expert’s report, a new link has been established between France’s nuclear testing in the Pacific and North Africa and cases of cancer among civilians and former military personnel.

The findings, revealed by daily Le Parisien on Tuesday, could help speed up the lengthy legal process to compensate potential victims of these tests.

The French army conducted 210 nuclear tests in Algeria, a former French colony, and French Polynesia between 1960 and 1996.

An estimated 150,000 civilians and military personnel are thought to have been present during the tests, but the French state has long been reluctant to acknowledge the effects the tests may have had on their health.

A ‘likely’ cancer link

Florent de Vathaire, an epidemiologist who carried out the research at the request of a French judge, told Le Parisien there was evidence of a “likely link” between the radioactivity generated by the nuclear tests and the development of various forms of cancer.

Vathaire cited the cases of a conscript who was merely told to shield his eyes with his forearm while observing nuclear explosions in 1968, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. The soldier later died of leukaemia, a form of blood cancer the researcher said should be blamed on his stay in Mururoa, a Pacific atoll used by France as a nuclear testing site.

The epidemiologist said France’s nuclear tests may have taken their toll on local populations as well. “Thanks to recent studies, we are now certain that small doses of radiation can seriously affect the thyroids of young children, causing cancers or other illnesses,” he added.

A lengthy legal battle

AVEN, a pressure group for victims of nuclear tests, said Tuesday’s report would help improve existing legislation on compensation for victims.

The French parliament passed a law in 2010 establishing a compensation fund for victims of nuclear tests, but the victims’ association says it is so restrictive that hardly anyone is eligible.

“To fit the conditions set by the law, you had to live in a precisely defined geographical area, you had to suffer from the ‘right’ kind of illness and so on,” AVEN’s Patrice Bouveret told FRANCE24. “Out of the 720 applications we sent, only four were even considered.”

Bouveret said he hoped the report would convince France’s Defence Ministry to grant judges access to classified documents “showing the effect of nuclear tests as measured by the army at the time”.

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