When the race for nuclear armament was getting fierce, France joined too. In asserting their dominance to the world, they developed their nuclear technologies by exploiting their former colony – Algeria. What France left in Algeria were large quantities of nuclear and non-nuclear waste that poses grave dangers to human life and the environment.
Between 1960 and 1967, France carried out 17 nuclear tests in Algeria. These tests were both atmospheric and underground tests. They were carried out at the Reggane and In Ekker sites. These tests were conducted under great tension when Algeria was focusing on the attendant reconstruction following the attainment of independence. At the same time, France maintained its strategic autonomy over Algeria.
A report titled ‘Radioactivity Under The Sand’ from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) shows the extent to which France left the waste in Algeria. It proposes a set of recommendations to redress the lingering problem. The study was led by Patrice Bouveret, director of the French Centre for Documentation and Research on Peace and Conflicts (Observatoire des armements), and Jean-Marie Collin, co-spokesperson for ICAN France.
The first nuclear bomb test on 13 February 1960 over Reggane (codenamed Gerboise Bleue) was conducted after French authorities had explained that the tests would be conducted in uninhabited and deserted areas. But at least 20,000 people were living near the sites. Gerboise Bleue was 4 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. These sites have not been fully decontaminated – and France keeps evading this pressing issue. This is more glaring when it comes to the compensation of these communities exposed to radioactive and non-radioactive waste.
After the tests France had done, the colonial power did not find it imperative to decontaminate these sites. France showed flagrant disregard for Algerian communities because after it had concluded the tests it did not help Algeria locate the waste, thus decontaminating the sites.
These tests were done clandestinely. France had started doing nuclear tests in Algeria in 1960, but the Evian Agreements of March 1962 (which established Algeria’s independence) allowed France to continue its testing program until 1967. On paper, the tests were wrapped up in 1967, but the reality on the ground was starkly different. The Algerian president Chadli Bendjedid covertly permitted France to continue tests at the B2-Namous site in Reggane until 1986.
It was only until the 1990s that information about the French nuclear tests in Algeria began to surface. At this time reports about accidents (the Beryl accident of 1962) during the tests and the dangers that populations and soldiers were exposed to were released. It became clear that France simply buried the waste in the ground or left it bare above the ground.
Exacerbating this was the fact that the two countries failed to negotiate a clause that would have compelled France to decontaminate the sites or furnish Algerians with documentation related to the nuclear tests. The absence of registered local workers who participated in the tests further worsened the problem. As well as incomplete and patchy data associated with the consequences of the tests.
France did not bother itself with the necessities of decontaminating the sites. It adopted a policy of burying all waste in the desert sands. From screwdrivers to planes and tanks, everything that may have been contaminated by radioactivity had to be buried. And the colonial power was not interested in providing the Algerians with the details about where this waste was buried, and the quantities of such waste.
This waste, voluntarily left on sites, can be classified into two categories. The first is non-radioactive waste (resulting from the operation and dismantling of the sites and the presence of the Algerian army since 1966). The other category is radioactive waste emitted by nuclear explosions (vitrified sand, radioactive slabs, and rocks). Most of this waste was left in the open – exposing the populations to hazardous material for human life and the environment.
Testing sites are still contaminated, with many scarcely fenced off by barbed wire. Estimates of the number of Algerians affected by the testing are sketchy, but they range between 27,000 to 60,000 – figures cited by the French Defence Ministry and Algerian professor for nuclear physics Abdul Kadhim al-Aboudi, respectively.
French physicist Roland Desbordes, who has visited the sites, described the extent of the French nuclear tests in Algeria saying, “I saw radiation levels emitted from minerals, rocks vitrified by the bombs' heat, which are colossal. These aren't sites buried in the corner of the desert — they're frequently visited by Algerian nomads.” The nomads recuperate copper and other materials from the detritus.
The French authorities evaded all accountability when they failed to give their Algerian counterparts the necessary information related to the tests. The report reads, “No memorandum and no report have been found that provide information about the radiological condition of the launch bases when they were returned to the Algerian authorities [in 1967].” It further adds, “The sites are not subject to checks for radioactivity and are even less the subject of campaigns to raise awareness among local residents about the health risks”.
In 2010, France passed the Morin Law that paved way for victims to be compensated (in Algeria and French Polynesia). But only one Algerian was compensated. The Morin Law also failed to consider environmental consequences. This has been due to the lack of archives and documentation, as well as various criteria that must be fulfilled for one to be eligible for compensation.
Victims need to have been diagnosed with one of 18 radiation-associated diseases, mostly cancers, and be able to demonstrate that they spent time in a specific area delineated by Committee for Compensation of Nuclear Test Victims (CIVEN) with latitude and longitude coordinates.
The United Nations enacted The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in July 2017 and Algeria is a signatory to it. It requires State parties to take measures to assist the residents and areas contaminated by the tests. It stipulates that a State party that has used or tested nuclear weapons or any other nuclear explosive devices shall have a responsibility to provide adequate assistance to affected State parties for the purpose of victim assistance and environmental remediation.
France has so far refused to sign the treaty. This puts the co-operation between France and Algeria in jeopardy. However, two experts have been appointed to facilitate the co-operation of the two countries - Benjamin Stora for France and Abdelmadjid Chikhi for Algeria.
The report stated how France should improve Algerians’ access to French medical archives, and that the delineated affected areas in the Sahara be expanded so that more people are included in resolving this matter.
Some of the recommendations in the report are that “it is important for those involved (French civilians and military and Algerian people) to include their witness accounts in a ‘collective memory’ for the benefit of future generations. Creation of this ‘joint memory’ could be commissioned by organisations in the two countries with the help of academics from these countries.”
“France should provide the Algerian authorities with a full list of sites where contaminated waste was buried, in addition to the precise location of each of these sites (latitude and longitude), a description of this material, as well as the type and thickness of the materials used to cover them. Details should be published relating to the areas contaminated by slag and lava and treated by simply covering them over (sand, layer of asphalt, layer of tarmac, etc.).”
Other recommendations are centered on the need to ascertain the impact of nuclear waste on transgenerational risk, as well as providing information and raising awareness in the population (in schools, in community groups) about the risks from radioactivity.