French nuclear tests in Algeria continues to pollute relations and environment

2021-04-27 22:03:57
French nuclear tests in Algeria continues to pollute relations and environment

The nuclear tests carried out by France in the desert of Algeria, its former colony in North Africa, continues to pollute relations between the two countries more than 60 years later.

The French army detonated an atomic bomb on February 13, 1960 as a test in the Algerian Sahara.

Just 45 minutes after the test, French President Charles de Gaulle sent a message to his army minister.

"Hoorah for France," read the note. "This morning she is stronger and prouder. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you and those who have achieved this magnificent success."

The detonation of the plutonium-filled bomb - known as Blue Jerboa - and the subsequent 16 explosions of nuclear weapons in Algeria were seen as a display of French strength and development.

At the time, Algeria was a French colony.

Yet the atmosphere on the ground, where 6,500 French engineers, soldiers and researchers worked on the project alongside 3,500 Algerian manual labourers, was less celebratory.

The bomb had been placed on top of a 100 meter-tall tower before the explosion.

Witnesses recount feeling the ground shake and, when permitted to face the blast, seeing a gigantic mushroom cloud.

The extreme temperatures near the blast crystallised the sand, transforming it into black shards.

Blue Jerboa was three times more powerful than the bomb dropped by the US on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945, which destroyed everything within 1.6 km (one mile) of the explosion.

The detonation of such a powerful weapon in south-western Algeria was justified by General Charles Ailleret, who was in charge of the operation and said "the total absence of all signs of life" was "essential in choosing the site".

Yet dozens of kilometres away, the inhabitants of the town of Reggane begged to differ.

Abderrahmane Toumi's family moved to the oasis after the tests in 1965. But later in life he was so affected by the suffering of the local population that in 2010 he set up an association to fight for those who were suffering from the effects of nuclear radiation.

"In 1960 when the bomb detonated, there were more than 6,000 inhabitants. Reggane was not in the middle of nowhere," the 57 year-old told the BBC.

"From what we are told by researchers, long-term effects started around 20 years after the first bomb was detonated and they will continue to last for decades.

"Many of those who were contaminated have already passed away due to unknown medical causes. They were told they had rare illnesses but they didn't really know the specific nature of their illness," Toumi explained.

Immediately after the Blue Jerboa blast, there were protests across the region as nuclear fallout from the bomb would be detected as far as Senegal, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Sudan.

Local researchers estimate that thousands of Algerians have suffered the effects of nuclear radiation across the Algerian Sahara, and many of the sites are yet to be decontaminated.

Algerians say they continue to suffer from the effects of the French tests.

"Stora is like a tailor. He sewed up exactly what France needs," said Mohamed Mahmoudi, a 49 year-old activist who believes he was exposed to radiation in the early 1990s while doing his military service near Reggane.

He says that at the time no-one told him of the risks of being in the region.

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