Monday, 24 February 2014

Newly declassified files expose decades of lies of French nuclear tests

Following revelations last July by the French newspaper Le Parisien that declassified official French Government  papers showing  the extent of plutonium fall-out from atmospheric atomic weapons tests in Moruroa Atoll in French Polynesia in the South Pacific tests in the 1960s and 70s (, new revelations have exposed the hidden truth that the atmospheric spread of radioactive fallout  from earlier French nuclear tests conducted in in Algeria in the 1960s was much larger that the French army admitted at the time.(
Reports by the France 24 TV station on 15 February now suggest that the fallout from the tests at Reggane stretched  across all of West Africa, across the Mediterranean and up to southern Europe.

AFP reports that the documents were released in 2013 following appeals from military veterans who say their current ill health is linked to exposure to dangerous levels of radiation.
One map shows that 13 days after France detonated its first nuclear device,   "Gerboise Bleue" (Blue Jerboa), in February 1960, radioactive particles ranged from the Central African Republic to Sicily and southern Spain. Gerboise Bleue was “more than three times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.” At the time, the French military authorities said the fallout from the explosion was limited to the desert and that radiation levels were “generally low”.

But associations representing military veterans of France’s nuclear tests in the 1960s and 1970s are demanding that the government admits it knew that the fallout from Saharan tests was dangerous.“ In the 1960s the norms governing acceptable levels of radiation were much less strict than they are now,” said Bruno Barillot, an expert in nuclear tests who is representing veterans’ groups.
“And the medical evidence we have now shows clearly that exposure to this radiation can set off serious illnesses more than three decades later,” he told Le Parisien (    

Barillot added that the declassified documents showed that the army at the time was aware that even the 1960s safety levels were largely surpassed and that significant quantities of airborne radioactive particles, particularly iodine 131 and caesium 137, could have been inhaled by large numbers of people in north Africa.
But he also complained that the government had been extremely selective in terms of what documents to release.

The Parisen article points out that  “if it can be demonstrated that the fallout of the bomb tests spread dangerous levels radiation over large parts of North Africa, many more demands for compensation from individuals and from national governments could be in the pipeline.


Le 13 février 1960, Gerboise bleue, la première bombe atomique française, explose dans le Sahara. Ce document détaille les retombées nucléaires radioactives dans les jours suivants.  


I found this suggestion interesting, as I had been involved in research on this issue over twenty years, when I did research for the now retired Labour MP, Llew Smith. In October 1993, he asked in a written question to the Secretary of State for Defence whether he would “ask his French counterpart for information provided by the French nuclear authorities under article 34 of the Euratom treaty since 1963 in connection with French atmospheric nuclear tests in Reganne, Algeria?”

In reply the junior defence minister Jonathan Aitken answered “ No. Article 34 of the Euratom treaty does not apply to military activities.” (Hansard, Tuesday 26 October 1993, Column 519)

Yet  just over two years late, when Labour MEP Alex Smith – for whom I also did  research-asked the European Commission “What technical information, as provided by the French Government, was in the possession of the Commission on the environmental and safety implications of nuclear tests on, respectively: 12 February 1960, being the eve of France's first test in Algeria — 1 July 1966, being the eve of France's first test in Mururoa — 4 September 1995, being the eve of France's first test in Mururoa of its current testing programme; and which independent external individuals or institutions have been consulted by the Commission to assist in the evaluation of the documentation provided by France on its nuclear tests?” he was told by was told by EC Environment Commissioner Bjerregaard  on 14 February  1996:

France notified to the Commission on 23 July 1959 its intention to carry out a nuclear explosion in the Sahara desert and the additional safety measures envisaged. The Commission replied on 11 August 1959 and gave a favaourable opinion while proposing some modifications. These concerned the timing of the explosion with regard to meteorological conditions, the volume of radioactive dust generated in relation to the characteristics of the soil, and the need to comply with the dose limits in the basic safety standards that were laid down by the Council on 2 February 1959.

France carried out the first explosion on 13 February 1960. Subsequent tests were carried out taking similar safety measures. No further notifications to the Commission in terms of Article 34 of the Euratom Treaty were received, neither at the start of nuclear testing at Mururoa in 1966 nor before underground testing was resumed on 5 September 1995. The Commission has throughout this period continued to assess the impact of nuclear testing on levels of environmental radioactivity on the basis of the monitoring data transmitted by France and by other potentially affected Member States in terms of Article 36 of the Euratom Treaty.

Such data were available for French Polynesia at the time France announced in June 1995 that it would resume nuclear testing. Additional data were requested by the Commission and received in the course of subsequent months, including some data pertaining to levels of radioactivity at and around the test sites. Moreover information relevant to the potential radiological consequences of underground nuclear testing was provided as part of the documentation which the Commission received on 17 October 1995.” (P-0116/1996).
So clearly Euratom's remit did apply to military nuclear activities, despite the MOD denial. 
From 1960 to 1996, France carried out 210 nuclear tests, 17 in the Algerian Sahara and 193 in French Polynesia in the South Pacific.

Le Parisien revealed that the documents "lifted the lid on one of the biggest secrets of the French army". It said papers showed that on 17 July 1974, a test exposed Tahiti to 500 times the maximum allowed level of plutonium fallout.
Richard Oldham, a member of the Polynesia nuclear workers' association Mururoa e Tatou, told Radio New Zealand International: "It's the right for our future generations to
About 150,000 veterans and civilians worked on, or were present during, nuclear tests, including 127,000 in Polynesia. But of 800 dossiers, only 11 people have received compensation, the Guardian has reported..

During the Mururoa tests in French Polynesia in the late 1960s, one veteran described how he was stationed in shorts and a T-shirt on a boat only about 15 miles from the explosion before having to sail immediately to the area of the vast mushroom cloud to examine the damage, the Guardian records.
Others on different tests wore shorts and had no sunglasses; they were told simply to shield their eyes and turn their backs at the time of the explosion.

In an oral Parliamentary answer earlier this month at defence questions, junior defence minister  Anna Soubry told Labour ‘s Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields: “It is important for me to make clear that the Government continue to recognise, and be grateful to, all the servicemen who participated in the British nuclear testing programme. Like all veterans, they are entitled to a comprehensive range of support from the veterans welfare service at the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, which can also put them in contact with other organisations that can help with specific issues…” and she added “…I am aware of the argument that is being advanced by the survivors, but there is no evidence to support their claims, and I do not think that it would be right to set up a £25 million benevolent fund when no proper basis for it has been provided. I am always available to listen to arguments, but so far I have heard no good argument to support that case.” (Hansard, 3 February 2014: Column 16)
I wonder when we will learn the whole truth of British nuclear tests.

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