Past time for action

Algerian victims of French atomic tests should be recognized and compensated

By Jean-Marie Collin, Patrice Bouveret and Merzak Remki

Editor’s note: This article (originally in French) was written before the October 9-10 meeting described below, but unfortunately there were no new developments made there. The article explores what needs to happen to deliver restitution and justice to the Algerian victims of French atomic tests.

Last August 27, Presidents Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Emmanuel Macron renewed the partnership between Algeria and France to “embark on a future in the spirit of appeasement and mutual respect.” With the holding of the High Level Intergovernmental Committee in Algiers on October 9 and 10, this intention should translate into new commitments which will reunite the governments of the two states. 

Not having been discussed during the meeting of the two presidents, this new encounter must mark a decisive turning point for resolving the issue of the consequences of the nuclear tests that France carried out in Algeria and which still impact the local population today.

Between 1960 and 1966, France carried out a total of 17 atmospheric and underground nuclear tests in the south of Algeria, at Reggane and In Ekker.

Among the 13 underground tests conducted at In-Ekker, two of them (Béryl and Améthyste) resulted in a very large release of rocks and lava from the mountain, which has left the area highly contaminated. In addition to the nuclear tests, there were also approximately 40 explosions conducted at Reggane (Adrar) and at Tan Ataram (Tamanrasset), using small quantities of plutonium, but which did not release nuclear energy (these were subcritical tests).

Underground tests conducted by France at In Ekker, Algeria. (Chart courtesy of the report, Radioactivity Under The Sand!)

It is clear that the health and environmental conditions in these areas remain a cause for great concern still today.

As the result of major mobilization, France has, with the law of January 5, 2010, accepted that, in recognizing and compensating the victims of the nuclear tests that these tests, both in Algeria and then in Polynesia, were not “clean”. It has even been admitted that the people present during these tests in South Algeria (civilians, workers, members of the military, scientists) have been affected by radiation-induced illnesses. 

The French law requires the applicant seeking compensation to meet very difficult criteria in order to have their status as a victim recognized. Most notably, the person must demonstrate that they were in the geographical area of the test fallout, at the time the tests took place, and must suffer from one of the 23 diseases listed in the decree.

Unfortunately, since 2010, only one single Algerian national has been compensated out of 723 people recognized as victims by the Committee for Compensation of the Victims of Nuclear Tests. The situation points to a serious problem. Moreover, this law has never been translated into Arabic (even though it has been available since 2019 in Polynesian), thus restricting its access to a large population.

Furthermore, we know that present generations — and future ones if no remediation measures are put in place — continue to be impacted by the consequences of these tests. In effect, after numerous testimonials and much research (notably the study by ICAN France and l’Observatoire des armements“Radioactivity under the sand! The French nuclear tests in Algeria: an analysis regarding the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons”, published in 2020 by the Heinrich Böll Foundation), it is recognized that France knowingly buried various wastes contaminated with radioactivity at the test sites. 

To these wastes must be added radioactive materials (vitrified sand, contaminated rocks and lava), resulting from the atmospheric nuclear explosions that took place on the site of the “Gerboise” shots and on a large area on the side of the Taourirt Tan Afella mountain at In Ekker.

Algeria, for its part, has taken another step in the process of taking charge of this issue at the national level, in creating, on May 31, 2021, the National Agency for the Remediation of former French Testing and Nuclear Explosion Sites in southern Algeria.

Testing for radioactivity in Algeria for the study. (Photo courtesy of the authors)

But if the two states have been well aware of the existence of this “radioactive heritage” for a number of years, we note, unfortunately, an absence of tangible progress in advancing this important case. The time has come to act quickly, in full cooperation and without taboo, just as Presidents Tebboune and Macron underlined.

Will the fifth session of the High-Level Intergovernmental Committee (HLIC), which is to take place October 9 and 10, be the occasion on which concrete announcements will be made?

In effect, this committee, launched in 2013, has, from the beginning, included a section related to nuclear tests, but the pace it notably slow. The first meeting of the mixed working group on compensation for the Algerian victims of French nuclear tests, on February 3, 2016, came up only with the prospect of “establishing a focused dialogue as soon as possible.”

During the HLIC, a plan of action should be drawn up, made public, and, most importantly for France, must include easy access to the Morin law* for Algerians, and the handing over to the Algerian authorities of all the archives on the consequences of the tests and on the wastes buried on site.

Algeria can realize its desire to act by establishing a cancer registry for the inhabitants of southern Algeria through its ministry of health and by launching an official study on cleanup of the radioactive zones via its remediation agency.

It is left to Algeria, one of the first countries to have signed the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, to begin the process of ratifying it. That would allow it to get international cooperation for environmental cleanup of the contaminated areas.

The parliamentarians of the two countries also have a role to play in establishing a mixed working group to monitor the timetable of work carried out as close as possible to the field and the populations. NGOs, academics, journalists and local actors must also be involved with this plan of global action, to ensure its implementation for the benefit of affected populations.

* A compensation law for French nuclear test victims, or the Morin Law, was enacted on January 5, 2010. Hervé Morin, who was defense minister at the time, promised compensation for the people suffering health problems resulting from exposure to French nuclear tests conducted in Algeria and in French Polynesia. However, the law judges cases individually and places strict limits on how, when and for what health complications compensation is paid.

This article first appeared in Le Journal de Dimanche, just prior to the October meeting, and is republished in translation with permission of the authors. Translation by Linda Pentz Gunter.

Headline photo: Algerian mountains by Djamel Ramdani/Pexels.

The opinions expressed in articles by outside contributors and published on the Beyond Nuclear International website, are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Beyond Nuclear. However, we try to offer a broad variety of viewpoints and perspectives as part of our mission “to educate and activate the public about the connections between nuclear power and nuclear weapons and the need to abandon both to safeguard our future”.

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