The Legacy of French Nuclear Testing in Algeria Shows How Nuclear Weapons Perpetuate Colonialism

The nuclear age began in the mid-20th century, as many empires were collapsing. Still, even as post-colonial states emerged from colonial rule, they continued to bear the burden of its damaging health and environmental consequences as their former colonizers developed nuclear weapons.

Many of the areas that are suffering from the effects of uranium mining, nuclear testing, or improperly managed waste storage experience these effects as part of a broader legacy of colonial violence. The toxic legacy of French nuclear testing in North Africa is just one example of how the impacts of nuclear weapons are disproportionately placed on Black & Indigenous communities and communities of color.

France conducted 17 nuclear tests in the Sahara in Algeria between 1960 and 1966. Most of these tests occurred after Algeria had gained independence from France following a bloody eight-year struggle. The Evian Accords, which ended the war, gave France a five-year lease to the Saharan test sites they had already used for testing – a concession the Algerians had long resisted.

Thousands of soldiers, nuclear program workers, and the local Tuareg population were exposed to radioactivity directly from the nuclear tests. The entire region was also exposed to significant levels of nuclear fallout that blanketed the area following the tests. Elevated levels of atmospheric radioactivity were detected as far away as the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, 3,200 km from Reggane, where testing had occurred.

The health and environmental legacy of these tests was made worse by the fact that for decades, the level of radiation from these tests – and even their precise locations – remained classified. Local populations were left to contend with their effects without even basic information about the threat they faced.

As scholar Jill Jarvis notes, the impact of radiation from nuclear testing on communities in North Africa continues today. “Radioactive dust still emanates from the Sahara, from those nuclear bombs, whose effects are absolutely indelible. In this sense, even the sand itself has been occupied by colonial occupation.”

In recent years, France has taken some small steps toward healing the legacy of Algerian nuclear testing. In 2010, the French government passed a law offering compensation to victims of nuclear testing. But as of 2021, only one of the 545 people who received compensation was Algerian. The 2021 Stora report aimed to aid reconciliation between the two countries fell short of recommending concrete restorative actions, such as France conducting test site cleanup.

Meanwhile, the fight for transparency about cleanup initiatives as well as where radioactive materials are stored is ongoing.

Former colonial powers across the world cemented their claim to global political influence with their nuclear weapons program. Truly ending the ongoing effects of colonialism must mean abolishing nuclear weapons and restoring justice for those impacted by their existence. The toxic legacies of nuclear weapons and colonialism are deeply linked, and they must be addressed intersectionally.