under the sands of the Sahara, the heavy French nuclear past

Hammers, extensions, socket wrenches, but also aircraft, tanks and parts of boats lie dormant in southern Algeria, under the sands of the Sahara. If the presence of more than 60 years in the middle of the desert matters, their radioactivity worries much more.

Divided between the places In Ekker and Reggane, these relics bear witness to a time when the world began the race for nuclear weapons; where the French army operated in what for a period was one of its colonies.

Reggane and In Ekker were the most important nuclear tests for the French army between 1960 and 1966.

As early as 1945, the French state sought to embark on a military nuclear program and to test its first machines, which were to form the nuclear arsenal. […] The French army will therefore look for territories around the world and in its various colonies where it can practice these tests, and will choose Algeria explains Jean-Marie Collin, expert and spokesperson for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN France).

The first French nuclear test

If the northern part of Algeria is populated and urbanized, the southern part is desert. It will therefore be the Algerian Sahara, and its sands, that make it possible not to leave too many marks. ” We have a vision of a Sahara where there are not many people, that there is only one desert. But at that time it was inhabited by important villages, but was considered insignificant amounts of the ruling class of the time. “says Patrice Bouveret, director of the Armaments Observatory and spokesman for ICAN France, which also motivates the French state’s choice of Algeria:” De Gaulle had hoped to isolate the Sahara from Algeria in order to keep it as a test site“.

See also: Stora report: “Between France and Algeria, this partnership is not symmetrical”

17 nuclear tests will be carried out between 1960 and 1966 at the In Ekker and Reggane sites. The first, blue jerboa, dated 13 February 1960, is reported in the study by ICAN and the Observatory of Armaments ” Under the sand, radioactivity! as a means: to observe and control the behavior, confronted with the effects of explosion and heat, of many materials used by the various armies. According to a witness, the three armies handed out equipment in the test area: “We found in the ground area dolls, tanks, armored vehicles of all kinds, cannons. In the air zone, planes ready to take off or parked behind sand dunes. In the sea area: superstructure of warships with their towers And cannons.“Most of these items are still there,” the ICAN study said, partly buried by French soldiers.

It can be suspected that the French state did not leave much choice to the Algerian authorities to continue the tests until 1966. Jean-Marie Collin, expert and spokesman for ICAN France

At the third test, red jerboae (December 27, 1960), we learn about the presence of live animals: a thousand rats and mice and a few goats “, located around the zero point to see” how they passed the test. In the fourth experiment, green jerboa (April 25, 1961) a nuclear war simulation is performed: ” Right after the explosion, maneuvers in tanks, but also on foot, were organized near ground zero […] to test protective equipment, but also and above all to know the reactions of the troops in a highly radioactive atmosphere “.

A piece of radioactive metal left at the French nuclear test facility In Ekker, near Ain Meguel, 170 km from Tamanrasset in the Algerian Sahara.  February 25, 2010. REUTERS / Zohra Bensemra

If France’s status as a colonizer explains the possibility of such experiments in the south of the country, their continuation after independence is confusing. The majority of the French Army’s nuclear tests (11 out of 17) will take place after 1962. Some of the Evian agreements are still secret. It can be suspected that the French state did not leave much choice to the Algerian authorities to continue the tests until 1966. Other tests on other types of biological and chemical weapons will continue until 1976. “Travels Jean-Marie Collin.

Also read: Polynesia: demonstration against nuclear tests before Macron’s visit

10 times Hiroshima and Nagasaki

At the test, atmospheric, but for the most part, underground air atoms, which require digging a gallery in the mountain to detonate the bomb there. ” Until when does the radioactivity remain in the gallery? We do not know anything. But we know that this highly radioactive waste has a lifespan of 24,000 years. The bombs we tested for were 10 to 20 times larger than those in Hiroshima. asks Patrice Bouveret.

The French authorities were largely aware of the problems with pollution from nuclear test explosions. Jean-Marie Collin, expert and spokesman for ICAN France

However, the two explosions in Japan had taken place about fifteen years earlier. Memorandum, military-oriented literature had been produced after these unique atomic bomb attacks in history. ” The French authorities were largely aware of the problems of pollution from nuclear test explosions when they mentioned several documents at the time. There was also a desire to clean the floor when the test was completed. If we clean, it is because we are aware that there is a real pollution problem. “, Points out Jean-Marie Collin.

On May 1, 1962, Beryl’s underground test did not go as planned. Some of the radioactive dust that should have been contained in the mountain is released, and the nuclear explosion causes highly radioactive lava to come out of the mountain. In 2007, Patrice Bouveret visited the site and still noticed it on the spot, in the open air that anyone can approach. ” The researchers told us not to stay more than 20 minutes on the spot, in which case we were exposed to the maximum allowable doses for a person working in the nuclear industry for a year. », The expert remembers.

See also: Nuclear: what about the risks?

The environmental and health consequences for the people of the region are, for any reconstruction work, very complicated to measure, so many documents and comparative studies (before and after the tests) are missing. Only evidence collections in which residents have been able to inform about their health problems can be consulted.

Neither the French Government nor the Algerian Government organized an information campaign or established medical follow-up with the population, which would have made it possible to have accurate data and to know the consequences of these tests. notes Patrice Bouveret. This finding explains the difficulty today for these populations in obtaining compensation.

1 Algerian victim compensated for 10 years

On 5 January 2010, France passed the Morin Act, which now allows for a ” Compensation procedure for people suffering from diseases resulting from exposure to radiation from French nuclear tests carried out in the Algerian Sahara and in French Polynesia between the 1960s and 1998. If it is translated into Tahitian for the inhabitants of French Polynesia, where France will carry out 193 nuclear tests after Algeria, the translation is still awaited for Arabic-speaking victims.

None of the civilian population living in the region were compensated. Patrice Bouveret, Director of the Armaments Observatory
and spokesman for ICAN France

There have only been 50 people of Algerian nationality who have managed to build a file in 10 years Says the director of the Armed Forces Observatory. ” And there was only one person who could get compensation: a soldier from Algiers who had been working in the squares when they were closed. No one from the civilian population living in the region was therefore compensated. In addition to speaking French, you need to have access to the internet, which is not easy in these regions. »

The expert regrets that the funds were deposited for the victims of the Polynesian nuclear tests did not also apply to the Algerian victims: “Nothing has been done to facilitate their compensation. France could have sent scientific missions with doctors and social workers to help residents put together files to see if their diseases were on the list, as they did in Polynesia. President Emmanuel Macron even visited French Polynesia in July 2021 to address the issue of the impact of these nuclear tests on the health of the archipelago’s inhabitants.

Today, while certain events tend to indicate a desire for compensation from France and Algeria, in particular through the forthcoming establishment of a joint commission for the rehabilitation of the geographical areas concerned, other decisions indicate a refusal to move forward. the topic.

A new treaty, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TIAN), supplementing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), supported by the United Nations and civil society, entered into force on 22 January 2021. bans on the use, financing and threat of use of nuclear weapons, the treaty obliges signatory states, victims or participants in nuclear tests, to take care of civilian victims and, as far as possible, to rehabilitate the areas affected by tests.

See also: See also: Will the Stora report put an end to the taboo from the Algerian war?

While Algeria has chosen to take part in the negotiations and is preparing to ratify the treaty in the coming weeks, France, like the powers holding nuclear weapons, has categorically refused to sign it. France then showed contrasting dynamics in the light of an Algeria that in June last year set up a national agency for the rehabilitation of former French nuclear test and explosion sites.

These populations have been waiting for more than 50 years. There is a need to go faster. We still have an important health and environmental problem that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. » press Jean-Marie Collin. “We are still waiting for information, even though these experiments ended almost 50 years ago.»


February 13, 1960: First French nuclear test in the Reggane region of the Algerian Sahara.

May 1, 1962: Beryl’s underground test leads to an “atmospheric test”. This was the biggest accident in terms of soil and personnel pollution.

July 2, 1966: The French army carries out its first nuclear test in French Polynesia, after leaving Algeria, which became independent in 1962.

January 5, 2010: The Morin Act now provides for a “compensation procedure for people suffering from diseases resulting from exposure to radiation from French nuclear tests carried out in the Algerian Sahara and in French Polynesia between the years 1960 and 1998.”

January 27, 1996: last French nuclear test in Polynesia

January 2021: Only one Algerian file compensated out of the 1739 filed.

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