50 Years on French Nuke Tests Cloud Victims' Health

by Trilok Kapur on  February 13, 2010 at 12:51 PM Cancer News
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The bitter fallout of France's atomic weapons programme still lingers 50 years after nuclear testing began, in the blasted wastes of the Sahara to the cancer wards of Normandy.

In the irradiated Algerian desert children are still born with deformities that campaigners blame on the experimental blasts, while back in France elderly army veterans complain of multiple unexplained cancers.

"Right after the explosion, they told us 'Go and see what happened'," wheezes 74-year-old throat cancer sufferer Auguste Ribet, unfurling a sheaf of paperwork documenting his long struggle for justice.

"We had pretty white cloth suits that were completely useless, and gas masks," he added, recalling the period in 1960 when France began atmospheric nuclear testing.

Ribet has been diagnosed with several simultaneous cancers over the past ten years. He wants the French state to recognise that he and several of his deceased comrades are victims of the tests carried out in Algeria.

"They even told me to go and plant the French flag in the crater left by the explosion," said 71-year-old Gerard Dellac, speaking by telephone from the Tarn region in southwest France, where he too has been struck down by cancer.

Since 1991 he has had 14 separate operations to remove malignant skin growths. Both men feel angry and betrayed by a state they say exposed them to danger and then abandoned them to their suffering.

AVEN, an association representing the troops exposed to the 210 tests carried out by France in Algeria and French Polynesia between 1960 and 1996, says it has gathered 4,500 testimonies from victims and their spouses.

A study carried out by one veteran who became a government scientist, found that the veterans are twice as likely to develop cancer as ordinary retirees.

But Dellac was refused a pension after six years of court battles because judges found that the nuclear fallout was only an "aggravating factor" in a cancer that could have been caused by exposure to sunlight.

Ribet, like most of the other veterans, has yet to go to court.

He still holds out hope that a law passed last month lessening the burden of proof on veterans, by establishing a presumption of a causal link between the bombs and cancer, may see veterans at last win recognition as victims.

On the other side of Mediterranean in the sands of the Sahara, however, the experience of the Algerian victims of the blasts shows that the sad story might still be far from a satisfactory ending.

Abderahmane Leksassi, a leader of a local association, told AFP by telephone from Riqqan, 1,147 kilometres (712 miles) south of Algiers, the compensation France in a law passed on December 22, 2009, was not enough.

"A few pennies are not going to settle a problem affecting several generations," he said.

France has allocated 10 million euros (13.6 million dollars) to compensate victims of nuclear tests between 1960 and 1996 in the Sahara and in Polynesia.

Leksassi is deputy head of the "Association of February 13, 1960": the date on which the first French atomic bomb exploded near Riqqan, during what the French military called Operation Blue Jerboa.

After three more atmospheric tests the site was moved southeast to Tamanrasset, for another 14 underground tests during the years before Algeria won its independence from France in 1962.

"It's difficult to estimate the exact number of victims of these nuclear tests, because the whole region was exposed to radiation and there was no screening of the population," Leksassi said.

"The region had between 16,000 and 20,000 inhabitants and nobody took account of the nomads who crossed it," said Mohammed Bendjebbar, who heads the Algerian Association of Victims of Nuclear Tests (AAVEN).

"Unaware of the danger, they picked up everything they thought could be useful: like highly radioactive metallic waste, jerry cans, tin drums and other objects left behind by the French," said Bendjebbar.

"No serious decontamination was undertaken by France," he added. In some zones near Riqqan, "the background radiation is today 22 times higher than international norms."

Residents said the site of the first test was still strictly restricted, with barriers marking out a perimeter for dozens of kilometres round the epicentre.

But Leksassi said the population still suffered cases of cancer and birth defects in "a contaminated environment."

After French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Algeria in 2007 he set up a working group to examine the after-effects of the blasts, said a French diplomatic source.

Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci said last month he hoped the committee would make progress before French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner visited Algeria "in the weeks to come."

Source: AFP

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