On February 13, 1960, about five years after the outbreak of the Algerian Revolution (1954–1962) and four years after the first exploitation of Algerian oil in 1956, the French colonial regime detonated the first over ground atomic bomb at Reggane, in the Algerian Sahara. Codenamed “Gerboise Bleue” (Blue Jerboa) after a tiny jumping desert rodent, it had a blast capacity of 70 kilotons, about 4 times the strength of Little Boy, the United States’ atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima a month before the end of WWII. Blue Jerboa was followed by “Gerboise Blanche” (White Jerboa) on April 1, 1960, “Gerboise Rouge” (Red Jerboa) on December 27, 1960, and “Gerboise Verte” (Green Jerboa) on April 25, 1961. After the four atmospheric detonations, the French colonial regime carried out further 13 underground nuclear tests at In Ecker, in the Hoggar Mountains in the Algerian Sahara. These atomic tests were conducted despite the referendum on self-determination for Algeria on January 8, 1961 approved by 75 percent of voters and which was followed by Algeria’s independence from France in 1962 after 132 years of French colonial rule. From February 1960 to February 1966, France thus detonated 17 nuclear bombs in the Algerian Sahara, spreading radioactive fallout across Algeria, Central and West Africa, and the Mediterranean (including southern Europe); and causing irreversible contaminations among human, animal, vegetal, and the environment. With these toxic imprints, France became the fourth country to possess weapons for mass destruction after the United States of America, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the United Kingdom.
France’s nuclear tests endeavors date back to the end of WWII, specifically to October 1945, when General Charles de Gaulle, President of the provisional French Government, created the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique (CEA, or the Commissariat of Atomic Energy), a French civil institution conducting atomic research in sciences, industry, and national defense. In December 1956, the French military authorities established the Comité des applications militaires de l’énergie atomique (CAMEA, or the Committee for Military Applications of Atomic Energy) under the leadership of General Paul Ely, Chief of Staff of French National Defense. It brought together the civil CEA and the military forces and scientists to work on a joint long term nuclear program.
During the Algerian Revolution, the French Generals’ Putsch of May 13, 1958 in Algiers marked both the return of General de Gaulle (the founder of the CEA) to power and the collapse of the French Fourth Republic (1946–1958). The coup was led by the apostles of l’Algérie française (French Algeria), including General Jacques Massu, Commander-in-Chief of the bloody Battle of Algiers (1956–1957), and General Raoul Salan, France’s most decorated soldier at the time, one of the forefathers of counterrevolutionary warfare, who in early 1961 cofounded the paramilitary terrorist group the Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS, or Secret Army Organization), which violently opposed Algeria’s independence and de Gaulle’s strategies. The May 1958 Putsch and de Gaulle’s restoration were fully supported by right-wing colons, known as the ultras, as well as figures like Jacques Soustelle, French ethnologist who served as Governor General of Algeria between January 1955 and January 1956.
In the aftermath of “May 58,” de Gaulle appointed Jacques Soustelle as Delegate Minister of Overseas Territories and Departments, the Sahara, and Atomic Energy, a post that existed from February 1959 to February 1960 under de Gaulle’s Prime Minister, Michel Debré. In his book L’espérance trahie (Hope Betrayed), published in 1962, Soustelle described his economic assignment in southern Algeria under French colonial rule: “I endeavored to carry out the work of a veritable economic integration in the Sahara, since oil, gas, and minerals were to be incorporated into the economy of the whole Métropole-Algeria.” De Gaulle had a personal understanding of the various assets of the Algerian Sahara, acquired during a private visit to various oilfields and construction sites in March 1957, prior to his official return to power in May 1958. The potential he foresaw there consisted not only in exploiting natural resources, but also in conducting a number nuclear tests in the Algerian desert during and after the Algerian Revolution. On 13 February 1960, de Gaulle exclaimed: “Hurrah for France! From this morning she is stronger and prouder.” However, such a pride never seemed to be affected by the destruction of human, animal, and vegetal lives and the toxification of hundreds of thousands of kilometers of environments in Algeria and elsewhere.
To prepare for their first nuclear test in the Sahara, French delegations visited the American Nevada Test Site (today Nevada National Security Site) in 1957 and 1958, and witnessed the impacts of the bomb. According to General Charles Ailleret, who led the military implementation of France’s nuclear testing program in colonized Algeria, the French colonial regime demarcated an area of about 100,000 square kilometers at Reggane as a military zone because of: “the total absence,” as he claimed “of animal and vegetal lives.” Contrary to Ailleret’s statement, the town of Reggane was inhabited, its region was crossed by nomadic and semi-nomadic populations and its fauna and flora were clearly not inexistent. On July 23, 1957, while the brutal Battle of Algiers was taking place, the French General Assembly and the Council of the French Republic decreed law no 57-820, in which 200 billion francs were authorized to be used for the development of atomic energy from 1957 to 1961. In October 1957, the secret construction of a new military base called the Centre Saharien d’expérimentations militaires (CSEM, or Saharan Center for Military Experiments) was launched. In a few months, Reggane region was transformed into an immense construction site and a horrifying firing range.
According to the French Office parlementaire d’évaluation des choix scientifiques et technologiques (Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choices), the number of civil and military personnel assigned to the nuclear experiments at the CSEM included 10,000 people (civil and military). A so-called base-vie (life base) was built on the flat plateau of Tidikelt, where the soil was compact. It comprised dwellings, administrative services, ammunitions and fuel depots, a water pumping station, a swimming pool, a hospital, and several temporary airfields until the completion of the aerodrome in May 1958. The advanced military base for shooting was in Hamoudia, about 45 km south-west of Reggane’s base-vie; it comprised two control stations: a military one that led the firing command, and the civil CEA’s control center that collected the data resulting from the experiments. The shooting field point zéro (Ground Zero), was located at about 16 km south of Hamoudia; it included a tower of roughly 100 meters high from which the atomic bombs were supposed to be detonated. To observe, record, and measure the results of the devastating nuclear experiments, a very large blockhouse of concrete was built at about one kilometer from the tower, and it contained cameras and measuring instruments. Despite the hot desert climate at Reggane, all these metallic and concrete constructions were completed very rapidly.
The bleu, blanc, rouge Jerboas were meticulously planned plutonium fission devices. Unlike these three atmospheric nuclear bombs, “Gerboise Verte” was promptly and prematurely detonated three days after the second Generals’ Putsch in Algiers of April 22, 1961. General Salan, together with Generals Maurice Challe, Edmond Jouhaud, and André Zeller attempted to overthrow General de Gaulle as they firmly opposed the secret negotiations between the French colonial authorities and the representatives of the Front de libération nationale (FLN, or National Liberation Front). Detonating “Gerboise Verte” ahead of schedule ensured that it would not fall into the hands of the Generals involved in the putsch and most likely the members of the OAS. “Gerboise Verte” produced a yield of roughly one kiloton.
To plan its 13 following underground nuclear tests, the French colonial regime built the Centre d’expérimentations militaires des Oasis (CEMO, or the Center of Military Tests of Oasis) for 2,000 people at In Ecker, about 600 kilometers south-east of Reggane. The underground nuclear experiments took place in the granite massif of Taourirt Tan Afella, at In Ecker. The massif itself had a perimeter of 40 km at an altitude of 1,500 to 2,000 meters. The firing took place at the bottom of tunnels dug horizontally into the rock of the Hoggar mountain and whose total length was about one kilometer. The firing underground gallery ended in a spiral so that the mechanical effect of the firing on the rock caused the tunnel to close. A concrete stopper locked the entrance of the gallery. At various intervals, safety doors were built to apparently reduce the venting of radioactive gases. In addition, recesses were placed on the sides of the tunnel where a number of measuring and recording instruments were positioned. Each bomb was placed at the end of this spiral-shaped tunnel. According to the Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choices, these techniques were inspired by the American experiments in the Nevada desert.
The 13 underground atomic bombs were codenamed and carried out as follows: Agathe on November 7, 1961, Béryl on May 1, 1962, Emeraude on March 18, 1963 (after the independence of Algeria), Améthyste on March 30, 1963, Rubis on October 20, 1963, Opale on February 14, 1964, Topaze on June 15, 1964, Turquoise on November 28, 1964, Saphir on February 27, 1965, Jade on May 30, 1965, Corindon on October 1, 1965, Tourmaline on December 1, 1965, and Grenat on February 16, 1966. The yield of these atomic bombs ranged between 3.7 and 127 kilotons. Béryl, Améthyste, Rubis, and Jade, four experiments out of thirteen, were not fully contained and confined; however, Béryl explosion was the most perilous accident among the four.
Béryl resulted in significant exposures of the sedentary and nomadic populations and the staff to highly dangerous radiation levels, and provoked further contaminations of the natural environment. Béryl was conducted two months prior to the celebrations of Algeria’s independence from France. According to Louis Blidon, author of Les irradiés de Béryl: l’essai nucléaire français non controlé (The Irradiated of Beryl: The French Uncontrolled Nuclear Test) published in 2011 — forty-nine years after the bomb was detonated — and who witnessed the disasters of Béryl: “The State, the Army and their institutions in charge of nuclear affairs, in particular the CEA […] . They dare to pretend up to this day that nothing, or little, had happened on May 1, 1962 in In Ecker.”
The Béryl catastrophe and the independence of Algeria in July 1962 did not prevent the French authorities from continuing the implementation of its nuclear program in the Algerian Sahara. The Evian Accords, a treaty signed in March 1962 in Evian-les-Bains (France) by the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic and the French Fifth Republic presided by General Charles de Gaulle proclaiming a ceasefire, and inscribing a number of agreements and protections, granted France access to military nuclear test sites on the Algerian Saharan soil — among other privileges, including oil and gas extractions, and the use of the military base of Mers El Kebir for a period of 15 years.
Despite national and international protests and criticisms during and after the implementation of France’s nuclear program and the detonation of the bombs in the Algerian Sahara, France did very little to acknowledge its responsibility, compensate the victims, decontaminate the Saharan regions, and clean up its toxic (if not deadly) wastes and debris. When the French colonial (civil and military) authorities left Reggane and In Ecker in 1966, they abandoned the nuclear testing bases and their amenities that had been exposed to radioactivity, they buried a number of contaminated engines, equipment, objects, and materials that served for one of the seventeen bombs. However, over the years, the winds of the Algerian Sahara uncovered these contaminated cadavers. To this end, the toxic imprints of bleu, blanc, rouge severally damaged and contaminated human, animal, vegetal, and mineral lives, as well as their surrounding environments.
In 1966, France moved its nuclear weapons testing from Algeria to another territory under French rule: Mururoa and Fangataufa atolls in colonized Tahiti-Nui (or French colonized Polynesia as the French colonial regime called it), in the southern Pacific Ocean. Despite objections and demonstrations, the French colonial regime conducted nearly 200 atmospheric and underground nuclear experiments in Mururoa and Fangataufa atolls from 1966 to 1996, toxifying further colonized environments.