French Nuclear Testing - History

The French government performed Nuclear tests in Algeria and in French Polynesia. these tests ran from 1960 to 1996.

France is one of the five "Nuclear Weapons States" under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, but is not known to possess or develop any chemical or biological weapons. France was the fourth country to test an independently developed nuclear weapon in 1960, under the government of Charles de Gaulle.

The French military is currently thought to retain a weapons stockpile of around 300 operational (deployed) nuclear warheads, making it the third-largest in the world, speaking in terms of warheads, not megatons. The weapons are part of the national Force de frappe, developed in the late 1950s and 1960s to give France the ability to distance itself from NATO while having a means of nuclear deterrence under sovereign control.

France did not sign the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which gave it the option to conduct further nuclear tests until it signed and ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in 1996 and 1998 respectively.

Testing in Algeria

Testing began 13th February 1960 and continued until February 16th 1966. 17 nuclear tests were performed in total.

In Reggane (Sahara) there were 4 atmospheric tests.

In Ecker (Hoggar) there were 13 underground tests.

A series of atmospheric nuclear tests was conducted by the Centre Saharien d'Expérimentations Militaires ("Saharan Military Experiments Centre") from February 1960 until April 1961.

Three further atmospheric tests were carried out from 1 April 1960 to 25 April 1961 at Hammoudia. Military, workers and the nomadic Touareg population of the region were present at the test sites, without any significant protection. At most, some took a shower after each test according to L'Humanité. Gerboise Rouge (5kt), the third atomic bomb, half as powerful as Hiroshima, exploded on 27 December 1960, provoking protests from Japan, USSR, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and Ghana.

After the independence of Algeria on 5 July 1962, following the 19 March 1962 Evian agreements, the French military moved the test site to another location in the Algerian Sahara, around 150 km north of Tamnarasset, near the village of In Eker. Underground nuclear explosion testing was performed in drifts in the Taourirt Tan Afella mountain, one of the granite Hoggar Mountains.

The Evian agreements included a secret article which stated that "Algeria concede[s]... to France the use of certain air bases, terrains, sites and military installations which are necessary to it [France]" during five years.

The C.S.E.M. was therefore replaced by the Centre d'Expérimentations Militaires des Oasis ("Military Experiments Center of the Oasis") underground nuclear testing facility. A total of 13 underground nuclear tests were carried out at the In Eker site from 7 November 1961 to 16 February 1966. By July 1, 1967, all French facilities were evacuated.

An accident happened on May 1, 1962, during the "Béryl" test, four times more powerful than Hiroshima and designed as an underground shaft test. Due to improper sealing of the shaft, radioactive rock and dust were released into the atmosphere. Nine soldiers of the 621st Groupe d'Armes Spéciales unit were heavily contaminated by radiation. The soldiers were exposed to as much as 600 mSv.

The Minister of Armed Forces, Pierre Messmer, and the Minister of Research, Gaston Palewski, were present. As many as 100 additional personnel, including officials, soldiers and Algerian workers were exposed to lower levels of radiation, estimated at about 50 mSv, when the radioactive cloud produced by the blast passed over the command post, due to an unexpected change in wind direction.

They escaped as they could, often without wearing any protection. Palewski died in 1984 of leukemia, which he always attributed to the Beryl incident. In 2006, Bruno Barillot, specialist of nuclear tests, measured on the site 93 microsieverts by hour of gamma ray, equivalent to 1% of the official admissible yearly dose.

Testing in French Polynesia

Testing began in 1966 and continued until 1996.

193 Nuclear Experiments were conducted. Moruga and Fangataufa Atolls were used.

Despite its initial choice of Algeria for nuclear tests, the French government decided to build Faa'a International Airport in Tahiti, spending much more money and resources than would be justified by the official explanation of tourism. By 1958, two years before the first Sahara test, France began again its search for new testing sites due to potential political problems with Algeria and the possibility of a ban on above-ground tests. Many overseas France islands were studied, as well as performing underground tests in the Alps, Pyrenees, or Corsica; however, engineers found problems with most of the possible sites in metropolitan France.

By 1962 France hoped in its negotiations with the Algerian independence movement to retain the Sahara as a test site until 1968, but decided that it needed to be able to also perform above-ground tests of hydrogen bombs, which could not be done in Algeria. Mururoa and Fangataufa in French Polynesia were chosen that year. President Charles de Gaulle announced the choice on 3 January 1963, describing it as a benefit to Polynesia's weak economy. The Polynesian people and leaders broadly supported the choice, although the tests became controversial after they began, especially among Polynesian separatists.

On 24 August 1968 France detonated its first thermonuclear weapon—codenamed Canopus—over Fangataufa. A fission device ignited a lithium-6 deuteride secondary inside a jacket of highly enriched uranium to create a 2.6 megaton blast.

AVEN was created in 2001 after former conscripts or ex-servicemen,having participated in French nuclear tests in the Sahara and Polynesia, started asking questions in case of curious diseases.

Dr. Jean-Louis VALATX Founding member of the AVEN - Former Military Doctor Researcher at INSERM with Bruno Barrillot and Michel Verger

June 2001:Constitution of the AVEN - Launch of the health study with veterans July 2001: Constitution of the Association Moruroa and Tatou in Papeete (Polynesia) with the assistance of Bruno Barrillot.

Dr Valatx carried out the first epidemiological study from 1800 AVEN members through a questionnaire to evaluate:

  1. The impact of irradiation on the health of Veterans and the incidence of identified diseases

  2. The impact of irradiation on trans-generational transmission (2 or 3 generations)

AVEN Goals

The association aims to support the cause of all Veterans and, especially, those carrying radiation-induced diseases, by intervening with the administrative and judicial authorities to obtain:

  1. The census of civilian and military personnel who worked at the Sahara and Pacific Experimentation Centers;

  2. Access to military medical records of test personnel

  3. The presumption of origin of radiation-induced diseases

  4. A Commission for the monitoring of nuclear tests

  5. Compensation fund for civilian and military victims of nuclear tests

  6. A pension right for civilian and military personnel and their dependents

  7. The recognition of the nation

In 2012 AVEN created OBSIVEN.

Nuclear Test Veterans Compensation Board

The French government set up a structure for the commission in charge of the study of the compensation files presented by the AVEN health division and the juridic cabinet Teissonnière.

The CIVEN composed of expert doctors, assesses the damage and offers a lump sum compensation variable from one veteran to another.

Since the creation of CIVEN, the total amount of compensations to veterans represents

€ 9,000,000 - $ 10,500,000 approximately

Presently, the CIVEN gives compensations to 90% eligible veterans after cases analysis.

AVEN Future

AVEN is open to all international cooperation in the framework of agreements with veterans' associations (such as NAAV, BNTVA, French Polynesia) in order to coordinate all actions related to the recognition and compensation of veterans.


The French nuclear test program ended 34 years after the British Tests on Christmas Island. The tests have caused major problems for the people involved.

A complaint has been filed at the Hague-based International Criminal Court against France for alleged crimes against humanity over nuclear tests conducted in the South Pacific, a French Polynesian opposition leader said in October 2018.

"It's with a great sense of duty and determination that we filed a complaint at the International Criminal Court on October 2 for crimes against humanity," Oscar Temaru, who is also the French archipelago's former president, said at the United Nations.

"This case aims to hold all the living French presidents accountable for the nuclear tests against our country."

Speaking during a meeting about French Polynesia as part of a UN committee focused on decolonization, he said: "We owe it to all the people who died from the consequences of nuclear colonialism."

"We see French nuclear tests as no less than the direct result of colonization," Temaru said, adding the testing was imposed upon the islanders "with the direct threat of imposing military rule if we refused."

Temaru, who favors independence, said France has "ignored and shown contempt" for repeated offers since 2013 to come to the table under UN supervision.

France long denied its responsibility for the health and environmental impacts of its testing, out of fear the admission would weaken its nuclear program during the Cold War.

A picture taken in 1971 showing a nuclear explosion in Mururoa atoll, French Polynesia

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