13 February 1960 - the first French nuclear test

13 February 1960 -
the first French nuclear test

On 13 February 1960, France conducted its first nuclear test, code-named “Gerboise Bleue” (Blue Desert Rat). The day marked the beginning of a series of four atmospheric nuclear tests at the Reganne Oasis, in the Sahara Desert of Algeria. With an explosive yield of 70 kilotons, Gerboise Bleue was relatively large for a country’s first nuclear test, around four times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb.

Upon completion of the Gerboise test series, France switched to underground testing at another site in the Algerian Sahara, named In Ecker, where it conducted a further 13 nuclear tests until 1967. Subsequent French nuclear testing was conducted at French Polynesian atolls in the South Pacific, site of atmospheric thermonuclear tests, starting with the 2.6 megaton Canopus test in August 1968.

I was wearing shorts. We were made to lie face down on the ground, eyes closed and arms folded, and not watch the flash, but immediately afterwards we had to get up with an apparatus round our necks and measure and photograph the impact.Michel Verger, participant in the Gerboise Bleue test

The French government had always maintained that its nuclear operations were carried out as safely as possible. Yet a confidential military report, first obtained by the French newspaper Le Parisien in 2010, indicated that soldiers had been used as “guinea pigs” to study the effects of radiation on human health. According to the report, a 1961 nuclear test involved military personnel advancing on foot and in trucks to within a few hundred metres of the epicentre of a nuclear blast less than an hour after detonation. A 2008 survey conducted by the French nuclear test veterans' association Aven showed that 35 percent of the polled veterans had one or more types of cancer and one in five had become infertile.

According to Algerian scientist Kathum El-Abodi, nuclear testing in Algeria also resulted in environmental degradation, such as the movement of sand dunes in areas already affected by wind erosion. Radiation furthermore led to a decline in livestock and biodiversity, including the disappearance of a number of migratory and endemic reptiles and birds, says El-Abodi. Read more on the effects of French nuclear testing here.

France conducted the last of its 210 nuclear tests on 27 January 1996 in French Polynesia.  Especially the final French testing series – carried out during the negotiations of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in Geneva – provoked international protests, including boycotts of French products. Later that year, France was one of the first countries to sign the CTBT, subsequently ratifying it on 6 April 1998. France also closed and dismantled all its test sites - the only nuclear weapon State to date that has done so. In 2009, the French Senate passed a bill acknowledging the impact of its nuclear testing programme and providing a first compensation scheme for civilian and military veterans.