Page last updated at 14:16 GMT, Tuesday, 9 June 2009 15:16 UK
France to pay nuclear test compensation

Nearly 40 years after the first of its 210 nuclear tests, France is preparing to compensate people affected by the fallout. The move leaves the UK isolated in its policy of rejecting liability for illnesses suffered by test participants, reports Aidan Lewis.

File photo of nuclear test in Mururoa, French Polynesia, 1970
France carried out 17 tests in the Sahara and 193 in French Polynesia

Early in the morning of 13 February, 1960, several thousand French servicemen gathered in the Algerian Sahara to witness "Gerboise Bleue" or "Blue Desert Rat", an atmospheric nuclear explosion four times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

This was the moment France obtained its nuclear deterrent, to the great joy of the president of the time, Charles de Gaulle.

But the test programme it launched also exposed participants and local populations to potentially lethal radiation.

Both groups claim that they have been plagued by health problems, from aggressive cancers to minor cardio-vascular complaints.

Yet the secrecy surrounding the test programme and the difficulty of scientifically proving a link between radiation and illnesses that often emerged decades later have complicated their struggle for compensation.

Slow progress

Only now, with many of the veterans dead or dying, is the French government drawing up a bill that starts to satisfy their demands.

Hitherto, France and the UK stood side by side in denying general liability for health problems suffered by those present at the tests.

Of the major powers that tested nuclear weapons during the Cold War:

  • The US system offers one-off payments or healthcare costs to military and civilian test workers; the government has also made $45m (£28m) available to people affected by testing on the Bikini and Enewetak atolls in the Marshall Islands
  • In Russia, the government passed a series of decrees in 2004 that provide healthcare and a small monthly payment to test participants, though there is no blanket compensation scheme; the government of Kazakhstan, home to the former Soviet test site of Semipalatinsk, has been paying compensation to the local population there
  • In China, the government is thought to have a secret programme to compensate nuclear test personnel, but it has avoided any public discussion of the issue
  • In the UK, the government has maintained that there is no evidence of abnormal levels of illness in test veterans. It has said it compensates where liability is proven, but argued that claims currently being made were brought too late.

The High Court in London ruled on Friday that a group of more than 1,000 veterans has the right to sue the Ministry of Defence for compensation, but the case is likely to take years to reach any conclusion.

France's 'conscience'

File photo of Herve Morin, March 2009
For a very long time... compensating the victims of nuclear tests was to risk weakening this colossal effort that France made to give itself a nuclear weapon
Herve Morin
French defence minister

The French government long blocked compensation claims by systematically appealing - usually with success - against occasional court victories by veterans.

The new bill would offer money to people present at tests - which continued until 1996 - who have contracted one of 18 types of cancer designated by the UN. This brings France broadly into line with the US.

After presenting the bill to the cabinet late last month, Defence Minister Herve Morin said that if the government had moved sooner, the effect could have been like "sticking a pin in a balloon".

"For a very long time, engaging in a process of compensating the victims of nuclear tests was to risk weakening this colossal effort that France made to give itself a nuclear weapon, and thus to preserve its sovereignty," he said.

But he also acknowledged the "physical and psychological distress" of the veterans, and the need for France to "put its conscience at rest".

Continuing struggle

Jean-Paul Teissoniere, a lawyer who has represented the veterans, said the compensation bill marked an important step forward.

"For decades they told us that unlike others, the French nuclear tests were clean, and that there were no health consequences for the veterans or the local populations," he said.

1960: French nuclear test in Sahara

"Today they are telling us that there are several hundred victims to be compensated - in reality we think there are more - but the act of recognising that the French tests were toxic and caused illnesses is in itself a new phenomenon that we welcome."

The government's plan follows a gradual acceptance in the scientific and medical community that even people who received relatively low doses of radiation could suffer health problems.

Campaigners also see it as a response to their pressure.

"It became untenable to keep on denying and doing nothing after so much political, media, and judicial activity," says Michel Verger, who heads Aven, the association for French nuclear test veterans.

But they also suspect that the government's hand was forced by growing cross-party support in parliament for a bill. Rather than leaving it to members of parliament to draft, the theory goes, ministers decided to write it themselves.

Michel Verger, Paris, 27 May 2009
They are going to give as little as possible - the struggle will continue
Aven President Michel Verger

The French government says it will provide 10m euros (£8.8m) this year, and can later supplement this sum from the defence ministry's multi-billion-euro annual pension budget.

It has dropped a requirement in early drafts that applicants must have been exposed to a specified minimum level of radiation, and estimates that a few hundred people or their dependents will be eligible.

But given that 150,000 people are estimated to have taken part in the French tests - including thousands of locally recruited workers who helped with setting up and dismantling the sites - the veterans say the government needs to go much further.

Mr Verger, 70, watched Gerboise Bleue as a young conscript with the military postal service. Despite some minor cardio-vascular problems he is now energetically leading the push to amend the bill.

"It's a bill in which the victims' associations are not represented anywhere," he says.

The veterans' association wants a dedicated fund and an independent committee that can monitor rulings on claims.

"They are going to give as little as possible. The struggle will continue."

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