Terra Nucleus: Radiating Desert Lives



Since 1945, colonized deserts have been used by the U.S., the USSR, the U.K., France, and Israel in order to “test” their nuclear arsenal. In this text that links the Chihuahan, Mojave, Turkestan, Western Australian, Sahara, and Naqab deserts, Samia Henni unpacks this history of continental nuclear colonialism and its toxic consequences on environments that are all but empty.

Henni Funambulist 2
Photograph by Bruno Barrillot, the co-founder of the Observatoire des armements in Lyon, France. The images were taken during a visit to France’s nuclear sites in Reggane and Ecker in the Algerian Sahara, with the filmmaker Larbi Benchiha and his team in November 2007. / Courtesy of the Observatoire des armements.

Since the onset of the nuclear age, the United States of America (U.S.), the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, now Russia), the United Kingdom (U.K.), France, and Israel, have conducted their nuclear weapons activities in colonized deserts. These Cold War programs have not only destroyed human, animal, vegetal, and other lives, but have also contaminated hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of natural, living, and built environments. Desert territories were chosen because the colonial or imperial administrations considered them to be “empty,” or “deprived of life.” For instance, General Charles Ailleret, the head of France’s nuclear program in colonized Algeria, stated in his memoirs that the Sahara was “a land of thirst and fear, from which all life was reputedly absent”; and that it was characterized by “the total absence of animal and vegetal lives.” This common colonial misconception of the desert dominated repeatedly the justification for turning deserts (their overground and underground) into radioactive sites. 

Contrary to this colonial distortion, deserts are not devoid of life. Desert territories—which comprise approximately one-third of the Earth’s land surface—host human, non-human, biological, and microbiological lives. They support sedentary, semi-nomadic, nomadic, animal, vegetal, and mineral forms of existence. Even though the presence of life in desert territories is evident, to this day, one repeatedly hears and reads the same old colonial platitudes.