Is Saharan dust radioactive?
Friday 4th April 2014
As Britain is blanketed in a layer of desert sand, DAVID LOWRY asks whether it could be contaminated by fallout from French nuclear tests in Algeria more than 50 years ago
South-easterly winds have coated Britain in a toxic Saharan dust cloud.
Combined with domestic pollution, the sand has caused air quality to plummet and engulfed many parts of the country in smog-like conditions.
But one unreported aspect of the Saharan dust is that it could be radioactive.
French nuclear testing in Algeria, conducted during the height of the independence struggle, spread radioactive fallout across southern Europe in the early 1960s – and the radioactivity that settled on the desert could have been resuspended in this natural fallout event over Britain.
It’s recently been revealed that atmospheric spread of the radioactive fallout was much larger than the French army admitted at the time.
New reports by the France 24 TV station suggest that the fallout from the tests at Reggane in central Algeria stretched across all of west Africa, across the Mediterranean and up to southern Europe.
The information came to light following appeals from military veterans who say their current ill health is linked to exposure to dangerous levels of radiation.
France‘s first nuclear device “Gerboise Bleue” (Blue Jerboa) was more than three times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.
Thirteen days after it was detonated, in February 1960, radioactive particles ranged from the Central African Republic to Sicily and southern Spain.
At the time the French military authorities said the fallout from the explosion was limited to the desert and that radiation levels were “generally low.”
But associations representing military veterans of France’s nuclear tests in the 1960s and 1970s are demanding that the government admits it knew that the fallout from Saharan tests was dangerous.
“In the 1960s the norms governing acceptable levels of radiation were much less strict than they are now,” said Bruno Barillot, an expert in nuclear tests who is representing veterans’ groups.
“And the medical evidence we have now shows clearly that exposure to this radiation can set off serious illnesses more than three decades later,” he told Le Parisien.
Barillot added that the declassified documents showed that the army at the time was aware that even the 1960s safety levels were largely surpassed and that significant quantities of airborne radioactive particles, particularly iodine 131 and caesium 137, could have been inhaled by large numbers of people in north Africa.
He also complained that the government had been extremely selective in terms of what documents to release.
The Parisien article points out that “if it can be demonstrated that the fallout of the bomb tests spread dangerous levels radiation over large parts of north Africa, many more demands for compensation from individuals and from national governments could be in the pipeline.”
I found this suggestion interesting, as I had been involved in research on this issue over 20 years, when I did research for the now retired Labour MP Llew Smith.
In October 1993 he asked in a written question to the secretary of state for defence whether he would ask his French counterpart for information on the French atmospheric nuclear tests in Reganne, citing article 34 of the Euratom treaty.
This treaty says that member states intending to conduct dangerous experiments in any part of their territories require permission from the European Commission and are required to seek its advice on health and safety.
In reply the junior defence minister Jonathan Aitken answered: “Article 34 of the Euratom treaty does not apply to military activities.”
Just over two years later Labour MEP Alex Smith, for whom I also did research, asked the European Commission what technical information the French government had provided about the environmental and safety implications of nuclear tests in Algeria and which “independent external individuals or institutions” the commission had consulted.
He was told by was told by environment commissioner V Bjerregaard in 1996 that France had notified the commission in July 1959 that it intended to carry out a nuclear explosion in the Sahara desert and “the additional safety measures envisaged.”
The commission replied the following month and “gave a favourable opinion while proposing some modifications.”
Bjerregaard said: “These concerned the timing of the explosion with regard to meteorological conditions, the volume of radioactive dust generated in relation to the characteristics of the soil and the need to comply with the dose limits in … basic safety standards that were laid down by the Council on February 2 1959.”
France carried out the first explosion in February 1960.
Bjerregaard said that “subsequent tests were carried out taking similar safety measures.”
From 1960 to 1996, France carried out 210 nuclear tests, 17 in the Algerian Sahara and 193 in Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia.
Yet Bjerregaard admitted that “no further notifications to the commission in terms of Article 34 of the Euratom Treaty were received, neither at the start of nuclear testing at Mururoa in 1966 nor before underground testing [in the South Pacific] was resumed on September 5 1995.”
So clearly Euratom’s remit did apply to military nuclear activities, despite the MoD denial.
For more of David Lowry’s writing visit drdavidlowry.blogspot.co.uk.