Wednesday September 22, 2021

France’s 1960s nuclear tests in Algeria still poison ties

July 30, 2021

Algiers: More than 60 years since France started its nuclear tests in Algeria, their legacy continues to poison relations between the North African nation and its former colonial ruler.

The issue has come to the fore again after President Emmanuel Macron said in French Polynesia on Tuesday that Paris owed "a debt" to the South Pacific territory over atomic tests there between 1966 and 1996.

The damage the mega-blasts did to people and nature in the former colonies remains a source of deep resentment, seen as proof of discriminatory colonial attitudes and disregard for local lives.

"Diseases related to radioactivity are passed on as an inheritance, generation after generation," said Abderahmane Toumi, head of the Algerian victims’ support group El Gheith El Kadem.

"As long as the region is polluted, the danger will persist," he said, citing severe health impacts from birth defects and cancers to miscarriages and sterility. France carried out its first successful atomic bomb test deep in the Algerian Sahara in 1960, making it the world’s fourth nuclear power after the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain.

Today, as Algeria and France struggle to deal with their painful shared history, the identification and decontamination of radioactive sites remains one of the main disputes. In his landmark report on French colonial rule and the 1954-62 Algerian War, historian Benjamin Stora recommended continued joint work that looks into "the locations of nuclear tests in Algeria and their consequences".

France in the 1960s had a policy of burying all radioactive waste from the Algerian bomb tests in the desert sands, and for decades declined to reveal their locations. Algeria’s former veterans affairs minister Tayeb Zitouni recently accused France of refusing to release topographical maps that would identify "burial sites of polluting, radioactive or chemical waste not discovered to date".

"The French side has not technically conducted any initiative to clean up the sites, and France has not undertaken any humanitarian act to compensate the victims," said Zitouni. According to the Ministry of the Armed Forces in Paris, Algeria and France now "deal with the whole subject at the highest level of state".