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France to pay nuclear testing victims

France has established a $13.5 million (10 million euro) fund to compensate people who claimed they became sick as a result of its four decades of nuclear testing in Algeria and French Polynesia, government officials announced yesterday.

Some 150,000 people were "theoretically" exposed to radiation from the more than 200 tests conducted between 1960 and 1996, French Defense Minister Herve Morin told the French newspaper Le Figaro, according to the New York Times. Until now, France has denied the radiation released had caused a host of ills, including cancer, in residents in neighboring communities and workers who conducted the tests.

"Thirteen years after the end of tests in the Pacific ... it's time for our country to be at peace with itself, thanks to a system of compensation and mending the damage that was suffered," Morin said at a news conference in Paris yesterday, Reuters reports. "The burden of proof will be reversed: victims will no longer have to prove that their illness is due to the nuclear tests, but it will be up the state to contest that."

Won-Young Kim, a senior research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, called the move "overdue," adding that the government should have acted "much earlier, as soon as it [knew] there was a problem." (Kim and his colleague, Paul Richards, wrote about advances in monitoring nuclear testing in this month's Scientific American.)

In the U.S., the feds for decades resisted compensating veterans of its Nevada nuclear test site operations and residents exposed to fallout on the grounds that doing so would undermine public confidence in its nuclear-deterrent activities. But the government two decades ago set up a program to compensate people who suffered health effects; Russia and Britain have done the same for people who were exposed to those countries' nuclear testing, says Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Washington. D.C. That France has waited this long to do the same, Alvarez tells ScientificAmerican.com, "shows how rigid and paranoid the thinking was, and that has been more lingering in the French than other countries. Some people have to retire and die before mindsets change."

But Frank von Hippel, co-chair of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, isn’t surprised it took France this long to fess up – and fork over funds.

"It takes a long time for these things to percolate," von Hippel tells ScientificAmerican.com. "There have to be grassroots movements of survivors and their families to work and get this issue to a level [at which] the government finally deigns a response."

U.S. Operation Castle, March 1954/U.S. Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration via Wikimedia Commons

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