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France to pay nuclear test compensation

BBC News, June 9, 2009.

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Overview

Nearly 40 years after the first of its 210 nuclear tests, France is preparing to compensate people affected by the fallout. The move leaves the UK isolated in its policy of rejecting liability for illnesses suffered by test participants, reports Aidan Lewis.Early in the morning of 13 February, 1960, several thousand French servicemen gathered in the Algerian Sahara to witness "Gerboise Bleue" or "Blue Desert Rat", an atmospheric nuclear explosion four times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

This was the moment France obtained its nuclear deterrent, to the great joy of the president of the time, Charles de Gaulle.

But the test programme it launched also exposed participants and local populations to potentially lethal radiation.

Both groups claim that they have been plagued by health problems, from aggressive cancers to minor cardio-vascular complaints.

Yet the secrecy surrounding the test programme and the difficulty of scientifically proving a link between radiation and illnesses that often emerged decades later have complicated their struggle for compensation.

Slow progress

Only now, with many of the veterans dead or dying, is the French government drawing up a bill that starts to satisfy their demands.

Hitherto, France and the UK stood side by side in denying general liability for health problems suffered by those present at the tests.

Of the major powers that tested nuclear weapons during the Cold War:

  • The US system offers one-off payments or healthcare costs to military and civilian test workers; the government has also made $45m (£28m) available to people affected by testing on the Bikini and Enewetak atolls in the Marshall Islands
  • In Russia, the government passed a series of decrees in 2004 that provide healthcare and a small monthly payment to test participants, though there is no blanket compensation scheme; the government of Kazakhstan, home to the former Soviet test site of Semipalatinsk, has been paying compensation to the local population there
  • In China, the government is thought to have a secret programme to compensate nuclear test personnel, but it has avoided any public discussion of the issue
  • In the UK, the government has maintained that there is no evidence of abnormal levels of illness in test veterans. It has said it compensates where liability is proven, but argued that claims currently being made were brought too late.

The High Court in London ruled on Friday that a group of more than 1,000 veterans has the right to sue the Ministry of Defence for compensation, but the case is likely to take years to reach any conclusion.

France's 'conscience'

The French government long blocked compensation claims by systematically appealing - usually with success - against occasional court victories by veterans.

The new bill would offer money to people present at tests - which continued until 1996 - who have contracted one of 18 types of cancer designated by the UN. This brings France broadly into line with the US.

After presenting the bill to the cabinet late last month, Defence Minister Herve Morin said that if the government had moved sooner, the effect could have been like "sticking a pin in a balloon".

"For a very long time, engaging in a process of compensating the victims of nuclear tests was to risk weakening this colossal effort that France made to give itself a nuclear weapon, and thus to preserve its sovereignty," he said.

But he also acknowledged the "physical and psychological distress" of the veterans, and the need for France to "put its conscience at rest".

Continuing struggle

"For decades they told us that unlike others, the French nuclear tests were clean, and that there were no health consequences for the veterans or the local populations," says Jean-Paul Teissoniere, a lawyer who has represented the veterans.

"Today they are telling us that there are several hundred victims to be compensated - in reality we think there are more - but the act of recognising that the French tests were toxic and caused illnesses is in itself a new phenomenon that we welcome."

The government's plan follows a gradual acceptance in the scientific and medical community that even people who received relatively low doses of radiation could suffer health problems.

Campaigners also see it as a response to their pressure.

"It became untenable to keep on denying and doing nothing after so much political, media, and judicial activity," says Michel Verger, who heads Aven, the association for French nuclear test veterans.

But they also suspect that the government's hand was forced by growing cross-party support in parliament for a bill. Rather than leaving it to members of parliament to draft, the theory goes, ministers decided to write it themselves.

The French government says it will provide 10m euros (£8.8m) this year, and can later supplement this sum from the defence ministry's multi-billion-euro annual pension budget.

It has dropped a requirement in early drafts that applicants must have been exposed to a specified minimum level of radiation, and estimates that a few hundred people or their dependents will be eligible.

But given that 150,000 people are estimated to have taken part in the French tests - including thousands of locally recruited workers who helped with setting up and dismantling the sites - the veterans say the government needs to go much further.

Mr Verger, 70, watched Gerboise Bleue as a young conscript with the military postal service. Despite some minor cardio-vascular problems he is now energetically leading the push to amend the bill.

"It's a bill in which the victims' associations are not represented anywhere," he says.

The veterans' association wants a dedicated fund and an independent committee that can monitor rulings on claims.

"They are going to give as little as possible. The struggle will continue."

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Health Legacy

By Aidan Lewis
BBC News, Paris

As France carried out its third atmospheric nuclear test on 27 December 1960, Claude Grenot, a young military serviceman at the test site in the Sahara desert, had his back to the blast.

After a short pause, he and his colleagues turned to watch a mushroom cloud that he remembers as slightly feeble, then drove over to collect goats and rabbits they had earlier placed in traps closer to the metal tower where the bomb was detonated.

"Before we retrieved the animals there were helicopters taking samples of the dust," Mr Grenot recalled.

"We picked up the animals then went to a decontamination centre where they measured our radioactivity."

Then the servicemen were herded into giant shower rooms where they were hosed down with pressure jets.

"When we were finished, we walked through a radiation counter to see if there was any radioactivity left. If there was, we passed through two or three times. Those who were really contaminated were repatriated to France."

For protection, he said, "we had white suits, a gas mask and rubber boots".

Now 72, Claude Grenot has been unwell for more than a decade, battling skin cancer and a brain tumour that he suspects are linked to the tests.

He needs a metal support frame to walk, and his hair has yet to grow back over a scar from an operation on his scalp.

"I've been operated on twice but since the most recent operation the tumour has grown very quickly, and now they can no longer operate," he says.

"I have the sword of Damocles hanging over me."

'Heavy radiation'

A former air force pilot who was in Polynesia for testing in 1968 and 1970, Philippe Gouze at first appears in good health for a man of 71.

His role was to measure the wind ahead of a test then search for the atomic cloud afterwards to see what altitude it had reached.

On 3 August 1970 he set off with three others from the Pacific island of Hao, about seven hours after a test on the Mururoa atoll, dressed in an orange jump-suit that was supposed to offer some protection from radioactivity.

"After two hours everything was going fine, we were probably flying at about 11,000m (36,000ft), when suddenly our colleague from the nuclear energy agency called out that we must be right in the middle[of the cloud], all his instruments hit maximum," Mr Gouze said.

"We were in clear sky, you couldn't see it - it was just ambient radioactivity.

"I quickly made a left turn, full throttle, to get out of the cloud, where we must have remained for five or six minutes."

Just over five hours later they landed back at the base, where despite some initial reassurance from a senior doctor, they were found to have absorbed several times the maximum permitted dose of radiation.

They were rushed to a hospital in Tahiti, where they had to take showers up to eight times a day and wash their hair with a special product.

"It turned out that after five or six days we had a normal dose again," Mr Gouze said. "At the time, it was forbidden to say we had been contaminated."

"We were subjected to very heavy radiation despite our outfits and masks. It was never recorded on our medical files, never."

Some French veterans, especially among conscripts who took part in testing in Algeria, said they were unaware that they were being deployed to test sites before they arrived.

But as an air force pilot, Mr Gouze knew his mission and supported France's nuclear deterrent.

"I agreed with General de Gaulle's politics at the beginning, but without knowing what it could lead to," he said.

He began to have serious doubts after the navigator from the August 1970 flight died of a cancer that attacked his pancreas, thyroid and lung in 1976, at little over 40.

Mr Gouze left the military in 1970 to join Air France. Starting in the 1980s, he was plagued with unusual prostate and thyroid problems, and had to have four-fifths of his thyroid removed.

All along, he says, his doctors have "asked themselves whether it's linked to the tests".

'Dying for France'

He also thinks that other test personnel and people living near the test sites could have been affected more seriously.

Claude Grenot has the same suspicion about the Algerian sites. After taking part a second test on 25 April 1961, he returned to the Reggane site four years later, once France had begun testing further south.

"We saw two locals who came by foot with their donkeys to remove the towers, which were extremely contaminated.

"The towers were hardly buried, the wind quickly uncovered them and the locals came to collect the metal."

Mr Grenot and Mr Gouze are hesitant when asked whether they might claim compensation under the French government-backed bill expected to pass in the coming months - both feel that others may have suffered more.

Michele Lecardonnel is one of about 800 widows known to the veterans' association.

Her husband Jean worked as a communications operator on board a naval ship during testing in Polynesia.

He was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2003 and died two years later, aged 59.

"No-one who treated him knew that he had a military background," she said.

"But there was no question - it was a statement: 'You have been in contact with radiation.'"

She said Jean had taken part in testing assuming to be correct "what he had always heard - that is that there was no risk".

"My husband, like all servicemen, knew perfectly well from the moment he joined up that he might die for France."

"It's only that, as he often said while he was still alive, 'I never thought that I could give my life many, many years later having never taken part in a conflict.'"

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Tricky Science

By Aidan Lewis
BBC News

There is no shortage of people who were present at nuclear tests and now suffer from health problems that, it is widely accepted, could have been induced by ionising radiation.

But when it comes to scientifically proving a definite causal link between illness and radioactive contamination, uncertainty is never far away.

For example, the United Nations only accepts that one illness - child thyroid cancer - can be definitely ascribed to the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

The only cases in which a link between a nuclear bomb and illness is rarely questioned are those of Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki exposed to more than 100 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation.

Exposure at nuclear test sites was generally much lower.

"At the moment there is no epidemiological study that has shown a rise in the number of cancers in veterans," says Patrick Gourmelon, a scientist at the French Institute of Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety.

"On the other hand - and here there is a total consensus - we know that with nuclear tests, if one does not protect oneself properly against the effects, there is an increasing risk in the long term for a certain number of identified cancers."

The French government's nuclear test compensation bill is an acknowledgement of this heightened risk for 18 types of cancer listed by the UN.

Cotton shorts

Studies in Japan also show that there could also be a higher incidence of cardio-vascular problems among those exposed to radiation from nuclear weapons, a link that Mr Gourmelon says is "not proved but strongly suspected".

The French government says that during testing it took all the protective measures for military and civilian personnel considered necessary at the time.

But the veterans themselves often remember what they say was a casual approach to safety, telling stories of people dressed in light cotton shorts being sent into contaminated areas.

And in the time since the tests, the perception of risk has changed, eventually arriving at an internationally accepted principle of keeping radiation exposure "as low as reasonably achievable".

There was an important shift, experts say, when the issue stopped being seen as one that centred on physics - the level of radiation to which people are exposed - and the much more complex issue of the biological transformation of cells was taken into account.

It is thought that there is generally a linear relationship between the level of exposure and risk - with risk increasing proportionately as exposure rises - but there is much uncertainty about what the affects of low doses might be, since cells could either repair problems or pass them on.

"You can make reasonable arguments that the relationship is approximately linear, but biological mechanisms are complex and still under intense laboratory research," says Malcolm Crick, secretary of the UN scientific committee on the effects of atomic radiation.

"Right now we don't know conclusively if taken together they would imply linear, a higher risk than linear or a lower risk than linear at these low doses."

Children suffering

Understanding of how damaged cells can pass on this damage to future cells is helping to "explain the very significant delays between the moment radiation took place… and the moment that the illness appears," says Abraham Behar, a professor of nuclear medicine and radiobiology in Paris.

But he adds: "It's because this delay can last 30 or 40 years that it is so difficult to recognise the effects in veterans."

Among 1,800 surviving veterans in France who sent in details of their health to the veterans' association there was an unusually high incidence of certain types of cancers and heart problems - especially among those who took part in atmospheric tests. The results were similar to those for British veterans.

Many of the French veterans also said they were sterile or had children with congenital disorders. Local populations living near the test sites have reported the same problems.

Scientists say no such effect was seen in Japan, and that the idea that health problems could be passed between generations is therefore doubtful, but they do not rule it out.

"We think reproductive cells are so sensitive to radiation that they are killed," says Claude Parmentier, a former head of nuclear medicine at the Gustave-Roussy institute who treated people living near nuclear test sites in French Polynesia.

If they were killed there would be no question of damage being passed on.

But he adds: "There could well be small, micro-lesions that grow with time and that can indeed be a threat for the descendants."

Natural radiation

It is among the 10,000 or so test-site workers from French Polynesia "that we can clearly see that there are more health problems than among the rest of the population," says Mr Behar.

But many people at these and other test sites around the world would only have been exposed to the sort of levels of radiation that could occur naturally.

"People think of radiation as something special and extremely dangerous but in fact we're all bathed in radiation from natural sources, such as cosmic rays, as well as being exposed to more common artificial sources such as medical X-rays," says Mr Crick.

"An increase in radiation dose that is a fraction of what we get naturally is generally not going to show up in cancer statistics.

"It doesn't mean that there aren't effects, it just means that normally you're not going to be sure there is a real increase."

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Test History

Overall, some 2,010 tests were carried out internationally between 1945 and the opening for signature of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996.

About a quarter of these were atmospheric tests. The United States and the Soviet Union carried out more than 200 each, according to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO). France carried out 45, Britain about 20, and China "over 20".

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