First quarter of 2002

Fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing: are the French less sensitive than the Americans?

WISE-Paris, 21 March 2002

[Posted 22/03/2002]

Fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing conducted by the Americans, Soviets and British may be the cause of 80 000 cancer cases in the United States, including 15 000 fatal cases for people living or born in the country between 1951 and 2000. These figures were announced by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) (1) in a press release dated 28 February 2002, based on a study carried out by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on behalf of the US Government, (2) dated August 2001, but which was not made public until 28 February 2002.

The report analyses the effect, on human health, of the US tests carried out, both in the United States itself and on the Pacific islands, and includes the impact of certain Soviet and British tests. It shows that the “hotspots” resulting from these tests may be located thousands of kilometers from the sites where the nuclear explosions actually occurred. This study, commissioned in 1998 by the US Congress, follows on from an earlier study conducted in 1997 by the National Cancer Institute on the dispersal and exposure of the US population to iodine-131. The latest study, which measured radioactive isotopes across the US and involved complex computer simulators, in particular, concerning atmospheric mechanisms, cost $1.85 million and took two years to complete.

Although banned in 1963, the atmospheric nuclear tests alone are thought to have caused almost 22 000 cancer cases of which half are or were fatal (including 1 100 fatal cases of leukemia) contracted as a result of external exposure. Several thousand other cases are estimated to have been caused by internal exposure through inhalation or ingestion of contaminated food, and are reported to include 550 fatal cases of leukemia and 2 500 cases of thyroid cancer. IEER’s director Arjun Makhijani confirms that, in some cases, farm children who drank goat’s milk in the 1950s in high fallout areas were as severely exposed as the worst exposed children after the 1986 Chernobyl accident.

This report has caused a great deal of stir in the US where the Government is suspected of having deliberately delayed its publication and dissimulated the potential effects of the nuclear tests on human health and where, at the same time, it is applauded for its efforts to be honest. Foreign countries also come in for scrutiny. Arjun Makhijani stresses that “it is now time for the populations of countries in possession of nuclear weapons to call for the truth from their governments”.

What about the impact of French nuclear tests?

By chance timing, the French MPs Christian Bataille and Henri Révol published an interim report (3) in December 2001 on the impact of nuclear tests carried out by France between 1960 and 1996. The report focuses on the three main French nuclear test sites: one in Hamoudia in Algeria and two in French Polynesia: in Mururoa and Fangataufa. The results of the French report are meant to be more reassuring than those of the US study.

According to the French report, the atmospheric tests conducted in Algeria had little effect, with 97% of the 8 000 people involved and subsequently tested having been exposed to doses lower than 5mSv. The six highest exposure levels recorded were between 50 and 100 mSv. However, an incident that occurred during the underground explosion Beryl (1 May 1962) reportedly led to 12 people being exposed to doses of 200 – 600 mSv, 37 people being exposed to doses of 100 – 200 mSv, 50 people being exposed to doses of 50 – 100 mSv, 224 people being exposed to doses of 5-50 mSv and 1 662 people being exposed to doses lower than 5 mSv. The report states that in total, the underground tests conducted in Algeria caused 581 people, including almost half due to the “Beryl” incident, to be exposed to doses higher than 5 mSv. The report provides no details on the impacts on local populations, considering, unlike the US report, that the explosion zones were sufficiently remote to guarantee minor impact. This seems all the more surprising since it is known that the plume of smoke generated by the “Beryl” incident reached a height of 2 600 m and that its direct effects were recorded at a distance of over 600 km.

On the subject of the atmospheric tests in French Polynesia, the report adopts a reassuring tone: “the results of medical tests carried out by the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) were subject to a health enquiry covering […] 3% of the French Polynesian population at the time. No specific health risks were identified as a result of these tests”. The impacts of the underground explosions are thought to be minimal, except for a handful of cases among staff of the Pacific Experiment Center (Centre d’expérimentation du Pacifique), ie seven cases exceeding the maximum effective annual dose of 50 mSv for exposed workers. (4) Regarding the impacts in French Polynesia, doses to which the inhabitants were exposed are estimated to remain below 5 mSv all over the territory, but the study notes an abnormal incidence of cervical cancer and lung and thyroid cancer in women. The study considers as relevant only the incidence of thyroid cancer, five times higher in French Polynesia than in mainland France. Yet, no direct link is established with the French nuclear tests.

Unlike the US study, the French report merely estimates statistics on doses received mainly by those involved in the French nuclear tests. However, using the ranges of the doses provided in the report, it is possible to estimate the impact, at best on the staff, in terms of mortality that the French tests may have had. On the basis of a probability of 5% per man.Sv for a lethal case, (5) it can be estimated that the tests in Algeria statistically caused between 0.7 and 3.1 lethal cases and the tests in French Polynesia between 0.25 and 1.2 lethal cases, ie a total ranging between 0.95 and 4.3 lethal cases merely among the staff taking part in the French tests.

Lastly, the report analyses the US, Soviet and British nuclear tests, emphasising, as in the US report, the high impact of those conducted in the first two of these countries. It should however be noted that the third highest total number of explosions took place in France (210), way behind the US (1 127) and the ex-URSS (969). There appears to be an even greater difference in the way in which the potential impacts of the explosions are analysed, and in the resources made available to ascertain them. While there is a factor five difference between France and the US regarding the number of explosions, the estimated effects is four orders of magnitude lower in the case of France. Does that mean that the French bombs were not as effective?


  1. IEER,
  2. CDC/NCI, « Progress Report to Congress: A Feasibility Study of the Health Consequences to the American Population of Nuclear Weapons Test Conducted by the United States and Other Nations », 2002
  3. C. Bataille, H. Révol, « Les incidences environnementales et sanitaires des essais nucléaires effectués par la France entre 1960 et 1996 », Office Parlementaire d’Évaluation des Choix Scientifiques et Technologiques, December 2001
  4. As defined by Article 9 of Council Directive 96/29/Euratom of 13 May 1996 laying down basic safety standards for the protection of the health of workers and the general public against the dangers arising from ionizing radiation
  5. Source of figure: CIPR-60: 1990 Recommandations of The International Commission on Radiological Protection, CIPR, Publication 60, Pergamon Press, 1991

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