On 13 February 1960 at 7:04 a.m., France tested its first nuclear bomb, named Gerboise bleue, over Reggane. At the time, the French authorities explained that the tests were being conducted in uninhabited and deserted areas.
However, at least 20,000 people were living at the sites, which still to this day have yet to be fully decontaminated.
What waste remains of the 17 nuclear tests France carried out in Algeria between 1960 and 1967? What kind of condition is it in, and what repercussions does it have on the health of residents and the environment?
Is France ready to assist Algerians in locating this waste and decontaminating sites, at a time when both countries show a willingness to work together on a memorial initiative regarding the colonial past?
More than 60 years after Gerboise bleue, was conducted, a report from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) recommends that France answer these questions and provide Algeria with assistance in cleaning up the relevant sites.
‘Radioactivity Under the Sand’, a study 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, provides a comprehensive review of the presence of French nuclear waste in Algeria.
Between February 1960 and February 1967, France carried out 17 atmospheric and underground nuclear tests in the Reggane and Hoggar regions, not far from a natural museum housing cave paintings which date back to the Neolithic period. Nine of these tests were conducted after Algeria gained independence in July 1962.
In accordance with a clause contained in the Evian Agreements of March 1962, France was permitted to continue its testing programme until 1967. On paper, the testing came to an end that year. However, the Algerian government under Chadli Bendjedid’s presidency secretly granted the French permission to continue carrying out tests at the B2-Namous site in Reggane until 1986.
Radioactive materials left out in the open
Although some of the facilities used for the tests were dismantled prior to and after the programme’s shutdown, waste is still present both above and below ground. At the end of the Algerian War, the two parties failed to negotiate a clause which would have forced France to decontaminate the sites or provide Algerians with archives and documentation related to the nuclear tests.
“After seven years [from 1960 to 1967] of conducting a range of tests, the two sites at Reggane and In Ekker were handed over to Algeria without providing for any procedures to control and monitor radioactivity,” reads a December 1997 report from the French Senate. The institution acknowledged that the French authorities displayed “a certain lack of concern”, noting that local residents “could have been treated with at least a little consideration”.
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According to the authors of the ICAN report: “From the beginning of nuclear tests, France set up a policy of burying all waste in the sand. Everything that may have been contaminated by radioactivity had to be buried.” This included planes, tanks and other equipment. Worse still, radioactive materials (vitrified sand and contaminated rocks and lava) were left out in the open, thereby exposing the population and the environment to assured danger.
The report also mentions that since France is not subject to any obligation under agreements it has established with Algeria, it has never revealed the location or quantity of the buried waste. The authors add: “The nuclear past should no longer remain buried deep in the sand.”
Lack of transparency
In a 1996 ‘classified defence’-level report held in the archives of the French Ministry of Defence and which remains classified, the French authorities indicate that the tests had been halted without taking any initiative to provide documentation to their Algerian counterparts.
“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],” the report reads. Not only does waste remain under the sand, but “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”.
Although the Morin Law of 2010 (of which France recognised victims through its nuclear testing ) opened the doors to granting compensation to nuclear test victims in French Polynesia and Algeria, it failed to take environmental consequences into account.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), adopted in July 2017 and signed by Algeria, requires State Parties to take measures to assist the residents and areas contaminated by the tests. In addition, the treaty 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 States Parties, for the purpose of victim assistance and environmental remediation”.
The issue is that, thus far, France has declined to sign the TPNW. What’s more, a lack of transparency still dominates. For example, ICAN’s report cites a secret agreement between France and Algeria regarding nuclear decontamination which was reportedly signed during former French President François Hollande’s visit with his Algerian counterpart, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in Algiers in December 2012. The agreement concerned the notorious B2-Namous site in Reggane.
A set of recommendations
Will the memorial initiatives recently undertaken by both countries – with the appointment of two experts, Benjamin Stora for France and Abdelmadjid Chikhi for Algeria – be a game changer for this chapter of history which continues to put a strain on relations between France and Algeria? According to Algeria’s veterans affairs minister, the memorial initiatives integrate the nuclear waste question.
In keeping with these efforts, ICAN’s report recommends that the two parties hold discussions and that France improve Algerian citizens’ access to French medical archives, as well as that French legislation from 2010 “delineating the affected areas in the Sahara” be amended “so that they can be expanded, as was done for French Polynesia”.
Other recommendations concern nuclear waste, with the report suggesting that “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”.
The report also proposes that France “provide Algeria with the plans of the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission’s [CEA] underground installations under the Reggane plateau military base, as well as the plans of the various galleries excavated in the Tan Afella mountain”.
On 13 February 1960 at 7:04 a.m., France tested its first nuclear bomb, named Gerboise bleue, over Reggane. At the time, the French authorities explained that the tests were being conducted in uninhabited and deserted areas. However, at least 20,000 people were living at the sites, which still to this day have yet to be fully decontaminated.
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