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Environment

French nuclear test victims reprise compensation struggle

In the year since France introduced legislation to compensate people suffering health-effects from the country's nuclear tests, Paris has only paid out one claimant. Yet veterans groups deny that time is against them.

Nuclear explosion after a weapons test in Polynesia

France tested nuclear weapons in Polynesia and Algeria

France conducted 210 nuclear tests between 1960 and 1996 that exposed a total of 150,000 military personnel and civilians to high levels of radiation. Now the so-called "Veterans of Nuclear Testing" are up in arms over the poor treatment they have received.

Several thousand victims, mainly members of the military, joined the group AVEN, while local civilians formed the group "Moruroa e tatou" or "Moruroa and us" to lobby for their rights and show that the health consequences resulting from the tests were more serious than Paris let on.

AVEN logo

AVEN is made up mainly of former military veterans

In June 2010, Herve Morin, who was defense minister at the time, promised generous compensation for the people suffering health problems resulting from exposure to nuclear tests, which were conducted first in the former colony of Algeria and then in the overseas Department of French Polynesia.

But even that law angered veterans. While AVEN wanted a broad definition of who could receive compensation, the law calls for cases to be judged individually and places strict limits on how, when and for what health complications compensation is paid.

The law also calls for each case to be recognized by a special state commission before compensation is paid.

First – and only – payment made

The first notification of payment was made in June 2011. The state commission approved several thousand euros compensation for a former conscript who was ordered to watch the detonation of France's first nuclear bomb in the Sahara Desert in 1960 from just a few kilometers away.

"Back then we wore white protective suits made of a light canvas," said the former conscript who wished to remain anonymous and suffers from skin cancer. "Our gloves and gasmasks were left over from the Second World War."

Herve Morin

Morin served as defense minister until November 2010

Within three weeks, the conscript's application was followed by 11 more for which the state commission denied financial compensation.

None of the applications ruled on from Algerians or French Polynesians has been approved. There are at least 500 more applications pending.

Jean-Patrick Gille, an opposition Socialist member of parliament in France's National Assembly, said he was upset about the outcome of the first compensation applications.

"The law was effectively made for the press," he said. "It was adopted so the defense minister, who wrote the text, could say, 'Look, I had the courage to address the issue.'"

Public awareness

While saying that the law has no teeth, Gille added that it had at least forced the public to confront the topic of those suffering from the effects of the nuclear tests.

"The public has agreed that the victims deserve compensation," he said. "But the compensation system doesn't work."

Jean-Paul Teissonniere, a lawyer who represents many of the victims, said he intends to appeal every case that the state commission rejects.

The French law calls for controversial cases to be decided by a second commission that includes representatives from victims' organizations.

But so far the commission has been filled with members of the centre-right governing party, the UMP, and has not yet set a date for its first meeting.

Four people who suffer health problems related to radiation exposure

Algeria also has thousands of radiation victims

Victims' rights groups had originally called for the state commission to monitor the health of all people affected by the nuclear tests, but after seeing that proposal rejected, AVEN announced it would take matters into its own hands.

"We are going to create our own body to monitor the effects of nuclear tests," AVEN President Jean-Luc Sans said, adding that the new body would also initiate epidemiological and sociological studies.

Long-term observation

AVEN wants to observe the health of people involved in the tests as well as those who lived and continue to live near the test sites.

"So far there are no investigations into the long-term effects of radiation, not even among the personnel of nuclear facilities," Sans said.

In Paris, member of all political parties have called for changes to be made to the compensation law. Socialist Martine Aubry said that she would expand the scope of the law, should she win her bid to take over the French presidency in May.

Meanwhile, French Polynesian politician Richard Tuheiava, who represents the overseas department in the French Senate, has pushed for the French government to pay for the negative environmental effects of nuclear testing.

A person waves a peace flag in Tahiti to protest French nuclear testing in 1995

Polynesians have protested against nuclear testing for decades

"We hold nature to be our nurturing mother," he said. "How can the children who suffer the effects of nuclear tests be compensated but not the mother?"

He said he is working on a set of legal proposals created with the help of Moruroa e Tatou as well as other Polynesian civil leaders but also admitted that getting the law changed would be a difficult task.

Far-reaching consequences

Nearly half a year ago, a high-ranking French military officer said on a trip to French Polynesia that the nuclear tests could lead to atolls collapsing and setting off tsunamis.

The remarks were seen as an admission that the consequences of nuclear testing could be more far-reaching that previously conceded by a succession of French governments.

In addition to the French Polynesian government, which is calling for an investigation of all effects stemming from the tests, insurer CPS filed suit in July against France calling for the reimbursement of the 226 million euros ($323 million) it has spent treating 5,046 patients in Polynesia for diseases listed under the current compensation law.

While AVEN joined other groups in appealing to the United Nations for international standards in dealing with the effects of nuclear testing, Sans added that he was convinced that the French government would eventually have to take responsibility for the detrimental health and other effects of testing in French Polynesia and Algeria.

"Maybe the government thinks the compensation problem will solve itself over time as victims die, but now the children of veterans are active in our organization and they will continue to fight for the rights of their deceased parents."

Author: Suzanne Krause /sms

Editor: Nathan Witkop

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