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Radioactivity under the sand via Beyond Nuclear International

The buried waste from French nuclear tests in Algeria

By Jean-Marie Collin and Patrice Bouveret

The following is the summary from the longer report, which can be read here.

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Between 1960 and 1996, France carried out 17 nuclear tests in Algeria and 193 in French Polynesia. In Algeria, atmospheric and underground tests were carried out at the Reggane and In Ekker sites, in an atmosphere of secrecy and conflict between an Algerian nation under construction and a colonial power seeking strategic autonomy. A majority of the tests – 11 – were carried out after the Evian agreements (18 March 1962), which established Algeria’s independence. 

It was not until the 1990s that the first independent studies relating to some of the dark events of that period finally became available. Disclosure about accidents that happened during some of the tests, about the risk that populations and soldiers were exposed to, in Algeria and in Polynesia alike, led to the implementation of the law “on 5 January 2010, granting recognition and compensation for the victims of French nuclear testings“. But this law does not take into account any environmental consequences. 

In French Polynesia, the strong mobilization of many associations has enabled the environmental consequences to be taken into account and the first remediation steps to be put in place. For Algeria, the situation is different. Due to a tumultuous Franco-Algerian relationship, the absence of archives, and the absence of registers of local workers who participated in the tests, the data on the consequences of the tests remains patchy and incomplete. It was only in 2010, thanks to independent expertise, that a map from the Ministry of Defense was revealed, showing that the European continent was also affected by fallout from the nuclear tests carried out in the south of the Sahara. 

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From the beginning of nuclear tests, France set up a policy of burying all waste in the sands. The desert is seen as an “ocean”, from a common screwdriver – as it is shown in the study by “Secret Defense” documents and photos – to planes and tanks: everything that may have been contaminated by radioactivity had to be buried. France has never revealed where exactly this waste was buried, or how much of it was buried. In addition to these contaminated materials, voluntarily left on site to future generations, there are two other categories: non-radioactive waste (resulting from the operation and dismantling of the sites and the presence of the Algerian army since 1966) and radioactive materials emitted by nuclear explosions (vitrified sand, radioactive slabs and rocks). Most of this waste is left in the open, without being secured in any way, and is accessible to the local population, creating a high risk for health and environmental damage. 

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France and Algeria are on opposite sides in this regard. One is a “nuclear-weapon” and the other a “non-nuclear-weapon” State according to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, and they have opposing views regarding the TPNW. France has constantly denounced it. Algeria has participated in TPNW negotiations, signed the treaty and begun its ratification process. Once the treaty is ratified by the Algerian State and enforced, Algiers will have to start implementing its positive obligations (articles 6 and 7).  

Even if France refuses to bind itself to the TPNW, it could participate in this process. Indeed, the opening of “a new chapter in their relationship”, according to the Algiers Declaration in 2012, like the ongoing initiatives (combined working group dedicated to compensation for the Algerian victims of French nuclear tests, the high-level Algerian-French intergovernmental committee) shows that this cooperative work can be carried out, without France breaking with its current position on the TPNW. There are several examples of inter-state cooperation in establishing aid programmes, even when these countries have had a turbulent history; just as there is at least one example of participation of a country in a programme for rehabilitation of the environment, even when, from a legal aspect, the country was not compelled to do so. 

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French political and military authorities waited almost 50 years before acknowledging the consequences for health and environment from the atmospheric and underground nuclear tests which were conducted in the Algerian Sahara and then in French Polynesia between 13 February 1960 and 27 January 1996. 

The situation regarding the French nuclear test sites in the Sahara is special. Algeria is the only state to have gained independence while its “coloniser” was conducting tests on its territory. Of the 17 French nuclear tests in the Sahara, a majority (11 tests, all underground) were conducted following the Evian Accords (18 March 1962), which signalled Algeria’s independence after a particularly deadly war. 

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The complex postcolonial relationship between these two countries has resulted in the environmental and health impacts of Saharan nuclear tests never really giving rise to official and scientific publications or to cooperation on this issue, either on the part of French or Algerian political authorities. It is therefore striking to note how little interest the environmental and health consequences from nuclear testing in Algeria have aroused over several decades, unlike what happened in French Polynesia – where France conducted 193 nuclear tests. Even today, these consequences remain a complicated subject to discuss. 

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