The legacy of atomic bomb testing and colonial history has come back to haunt France in the form of a radioactive Saharan dust cloud.
Dust-filled winds from the Sahara Desert flew north over Spain, France, the UK, and Ireland in February. Along with bringing golden-tinged evening skies to some parts of Europe, it also delivered a slight – yet notable – spike in radiation. According to ACRO (Association for Control of Radioactivity in the West), this recent plume of lightly radioactive dust can be tightly linked to France's colonial past and its Cold War-era atomic bombing tests.
Before Algeria gained its independence from French colonization in 1962, stretches of the Saharan Desert were used as a playground for France’s atomic bomb tests. On February 13, 1960, France carried out its first atmospheric nuclear tests, code-named “Gerboise Bleue” (Blue Desert Rat), in the Algerian Sahara, and a number of underground tests in their territory followed. The tests exposed the residents of the region, as well as stationed French soldiers, to radiation which continues to lurk in the deserts to this day.
Analysis by ACRO suggests that the recent spike in radiation over France is directly linked to this historic nuclear bomb testing. Researchers took samples of the Saharan Dust from car windshields and took them to a laboratory for analysis. This revealed the presence of cesium-137: a radioactive isotope that is not naturally found in the sand of the Sahara Desert, but is commonly produced through the nuclear fission of uranium-235 in nuclear weapons.
Giving this radioactive signature, ACRO argues that the radiation spike seen in February is most likely linked to the French nuclear tests carried out in the Algerian Sahara during the early 1960s.
“This radioactive pollution – still observable at long distances 60 years after the nuclear fire – reminds us of this situation of perennial radioactive contamination in the Sahara for which France bears the responsibility,” they said in a statement.
The increased levels of radiation over parts of Europe recently were only subtle, and not significant enough to pose any real risk to public health.
However, it isn’t just the Saharan Desert that bears the ghosts of Cold War atom bomb tests. Between 1945 and 1980, the US, the Soviet Union, the UK, France, and China are estimated to have carried out at least 520 atmospheric nuclear tests reaching stratospheric levels.
One of the most affected areas of the planet is Bikini Atoll, which bore the brunt of at least 23 nuclear weapons by the US between 1946 and 1958, including Castle Bravo, the most powerful thermonuclear weapon ever tested by the US. Recent scientific studies have suggested that this tropical reef in the south Pacific is still more radioactive than Chernobyl. Reckless testing in the south Pacific also brought more than its fair share of human suffering. It’s estimated that 665 inhabitants of the nearby Marshall Islands were overexposed to radiation. Just a couple of years ago the United Nations warned that a decades-old "nuclear coffin” in the Marshall Islands could be leaking radioactive fallout into the Pacific Ocean