PARIS – The French government offered for the first time Tuesday to compensate victims of nuclear tests in Algeria and the South Pacific, bowing to decades of pressure by people sickened by radiation — and seeking to soothe France's conscience.
"It's time for our country to be at peace with itself, at peace thanks to a system of compensation and reparations," French Defense Minister Herve Morin said in presenting a draft law on the payouts.
Victims cautiously welcomed the move, nearly 50 years after France conducted its first atomic tests. But they say it's still too stingy, and is only a first step toward healing wounds left by explosions that sent blinding white flashes cascading over French Polynesia and the Sahara Desert.
The French government will set aside some $13.5 million for the compensation for the first year, Morin said. The U.S. government, by comparison, has approved more than $1.38 billion in compensation to victims of nuclear tests since the enactment of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990.
French army veteran Pierre Leroy recalled being present when a nuclear test explosion blasted through its containment structure and sent a radioactive cloud over the Sahara in 1962.
"We were 19, 20 years old. They told us, 'There are no risks, it's not dangerous,'" he said. "There were no precautions."
He described being worn down by years of subsequent government denials of negligence and refusals to compensate victims.
"We're not asking for the moon," Leroy said.
Some 150,000 people, including civilian and military personnel, were on site for the 210 tests France carried out, both in the atmosphere and underground, in the Sahara Desert and the South Pacific from 1960-1996.
But Morin said only a few hundred were likely to be eligible for compensation, which would be decided on a case-by-case basis and granted only to those who suffered health problems related to the tests.
The bill will be presented in the coming months to parliament, and while it is likely to pass, victims' groups are pushing to add amendments to broaden the number of people eligible.
Descendants of victims who have since died would be entitled to apply for payouts, Morin said.
Morin said anyone with health problems who resided near the test sites would be eligible to seek payouts under the bill — including Algerians, whose country won independence from France in 1962, after the nuclear test program had started.
Algerian officials and activists hoped the move would encourage broader atonement and reparation — but held back praise while waiting to see the fine print of the draft law.
Abderahmane Laksassi, the head of Algeria's test victims association, called it "a good first step." He estimated that some 10,000 people have suffered disease or material losses because of the tests — including tribes of nomads whose herds could have been exposed for years.
Morin defended the need for the tests at the time when France was building up its nuclear arsenal during the Cold War.
These tests "allowed us to obtain an independent force of dissuasion, guaranteeing the protection of our vital interests and allowing us to be a power respected in the world alongside the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council," Morin said.
All five permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council possess nuclear arsenals: the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China.
In Britain, no formal government compensation program exists. Nearly 1,000 veterans of Christmas Island nuclear tests in the 1950s are seeking to sue Ministry of Defense for negligence, saying they were warned of potential dangers only after the experiments. Lawyers for the servicemen say the ministry argues the case should be dropped because too much time has passed.
Veterans of nuclear tests say time should not be an issue, and note they have been demanding compensation for decades.
Leroy warned that the "case-by-case" study could work against the victims.
"They are going to see if people smoke, and they will say, 'OK, you have lung cancer, it's because you smoke. Your liver hurts? It's because you drank,'" he said.
France tested its first atomic bomb on Feb. 13, 1960, in the Algerian Sahara. Most French nuclear tests — a total of 123 — were detonated in the volcanic rock beneath Mururoa Atoll southeast of Tahiti. France halted atmospheric testing in 1974, and performed its last underground blasts at Mururoa in 1996.
As recently as 2003, then-President Jacques Chirac said during a visit to Tahiti that tests had shown no ill effects to health from France's nuclear detonations in Polynesia.