Wednesday, March 25, 2009

France to Compensate Nuclear Test Victims


PARIS (AFP/Pacific Media Watch): France said Tuesday it will compensate victims of nuclear testing carried out in French Polynesia and Algeria, after decades of denying its responsibility.

An initial sum of 10 million euros (US$14 million) has been set aside for military and civilian staff as well as local populations who fell ill from radiation exposure, Defence Minister Herve Morin said.

Some 150,000 civilian and military personnel took part in the 210 nuclear tests carried out in the Algerian Sahara desert and the Pacific between 1960 and 1996.

"It's time for France to be true to its conscience," Morin told Le Figaro newspaper.

The move was welcomed by French veterans who had been waging a long campaign for the state to recognise its responsibility toward ageing and sick staff of its nuclear programme.

"This is a step forward that we are greeting with satisfaction," said Michel Leger, president of the Association of Veterans of Nuclear Tests (AVEN).

Leger recalled he was "wearing shorts and a hat, lying on the ground without protective eyewear, arms folded over my eyes" when an above-ground test took place 40 km (25 miles) away, in southern Algeria in the early 1960s.

"Afterwards, there was no medical checkup," said Leger, who now suffers from cardiovascular illnesses.

One of the world's five declared nuclear powers, France carried out 17 nuclear tests in Algeria in the early 1960s including four atmospheric trials.

The first test code-named "Gerboise Bleue" (Blue Gerbil) took place on February 13, 1960 in Reggane, southern Algeria, some 15 years after the United States ushered in the age of nuclear weapons with its test in New Mexico.

Over four decades, 193 tests were carried out at the French Polynesian islands of Moruroa and at Fangataufa until 1996 when president Jacques Chirac declared an end to the programme.

Retired sailor Serge Vauley recounted that his crew was told to stand on the deck of the Foch aircraft carrier to "admire France's firepower" when the mushroom cloud from a test rose up to the Pacific sky.

Vauley, now 64 and one of the victims seeking compensation, suffers from respiratory problems and described having "holes the size of my fist" in his lungs, Le Figaro reported.

Refusing to acknowledge a direct link between the nuclear tests and the veteran's illnesses, the French government had long argued that it had done everything possible to minimize risks to personnel during testing.

Morin told a news conference that France feared recognition of the ravages caused to its personnel would have weakened its nuclear programme during the Cold War.

By offering compensation, the government was hoping to avoid long, drawn-out litigation, he said. About a dozen veterans have won minor damages in lawsuits brought against the state.

A bill is expected to be presented to parliament next month that will set up a nine-member commission of physicians, led by a magistrate, who will examine individual claims for compensation.

Veterans expressed concern however that the defence minister would have the final say on awarding compensation instead of the independent commission.

They also said it remained unclear how the government would go about compensating native populations.

"These populations will have to prove that they lived there when the tests occurred," said Patrice Bauveret, of the veterans' group.

The government is also lifting the veil of secrecy surrounding its nuclear programme as it considers the compensation claims.

The military archives of the nuclear programme have been opened and are being examined by two experts who are to submit a report in December on the environmental impact of the tests.

A separate health study is under way of 30,000 personnel who took part in the trials that could help support claims presented to the government.

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