Africa and the Atomic Bomb: Part II

The Sahara holds nuclear secrets.

“Africa and the Atomic Bomb” is a three-part series that explores Africa’s role in the global nuclear order by examining the complexity and variety of African relationships with nuclear arms and nuclear energy through the lenses of security, development, climate change and the environment, and global justice and equality. Many thanks to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, which hosted a panel titled “Africa and the Atom” on March 26, 2021 that prompted the series. 

In Part II, both Jean-Marie Collin and Austin R. Cooper describe France’s nuclear legacy and its role in shaping African perceptions about nuclear weapons, the environmental impact of nuclear testing, and disarmament. You can find Part I here, which focused on recognizing Africa’s role in the global nuclear order.



Jean-Marie Collin

From the south, where South Africa created its own nuclear program in the 1970s only to eliminate it in the 1980s, to the centre where the Democratic Republic of Congo‘s uranium was used for the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan during World War II, to the north where, the Sahara was being subjected to French nuclear testing, shows that the entire African continent has a distinct nuclear history and shares in the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.

When we think of nuclear testing, it’s important to understand that the radiological legacy, which applies to all former nuclear test sites, is still on the ground — and underground. A nuclear detonation produces substantial radioactive waste streams. If measures to assure the health protection and the soil’s decontamination are not carried out, such radioactive waste represents a significant health risk for the adjacent populations and also for future generation.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is an opportunity to begin a new chapter for the Sahara, based on positive engagement.

Between 1960 and 1966, France carried out seventeen nuclear atmospheric and underground tests in Algeria, at the Reggane and In Ekker sites. A majority of the tests, eleven, were carried out after the Evian Agreements, signed on March 18, 1962, which established Algeria’s independence.

In our study “Radioactivity Under the Sand” we show, from the beginning of nuclear tests, France set up a policy of burying all waste in the sand. The desert, therefore, is seen as an “ocean.” From a common screwdriver to planes and tanks, everything that may have been contaminated by radioactivity had to be buried. In addition to these contaminated materials there are two other categories: non-radioactive waste, which is related to the French occupation, to the dismantling of the sites, and to the presence of the Algerian army since 1966, and radioactive materials emitted by nuclear explosions (i.e., vitrified sand, radioactive slabs, and rocks). The presence of this waste — which exists to this day — entails considerable risks to the health of local people and future generations, along with the environment and wildlife.

A Promising Opportunity

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)  — which bans any activity related to military nuclear power — opens the door to assistance for victims of the testing and environmental remediation. The TPNW, therefore, is an opportunity to begin a new chapter for the Sahara, based on positive engagement. Once Algeria has ratified the treaty (it signed it on September 20, 2017), Algiers will have the obligation to respect this international law, but for this, Algiers must have the full list of contaminated sites. France will only provide these documents if they are officially requested by Algiers. This explains why Algiers has initiated a dialogue, at the highest military level, where it was asked for full access to these documents and technical assistance. On the other hand, in order to change this immobile French posture, it’s necessary to have a national political mobilization. For this purpose ICAN France has taken various steps (OpEd, written questions, hearing) with parliamentarians.

The TPNW also gives African states that have ratified it, which include Benin, Botswana, the Comoros, Gambia, Lesotho, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, to play an active role between France and Algeria. Collectively, they can encourage Paris and Algiers to work together to resolve this humanitarian problem. The obstacles are numerous and have to be overcome. The “nuclear past” should no longer remain buried deep in the sand.

Jean-Marie Collin is an expert on nuclear disarmament and co-spokesperson of the French branch of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.



Austin R. Cooper

When France detonated nuclear weapons in the Algerian Sahara at the turn of the 1960s, African leaders renewed international attention to radioactive fallout, and made this threat to health and safety part of decolonization struggles across the continent.

France conducted four atmospheric blasts near the oasis town of Reggane during the Algerian War for Independence (1954–62), the first and largest registering 70 kilotons, roughly 5 times the US bomb that leveled Hiroshima. Under a provision of the ceasefire that ended the Algerian War, France continued to use the Algerian Sahara through 1966 for underground nuclear explosions, including multiple events where radioactive debris escaped the blast chambers dug beneath Saharan mountains for containment.

African leaders raised important questions about radiation risk and the global nuclear order: Which places (if any) should serve as nuclear test sites?

Before the first mushroom cloud rose above the Sahara, African leaders highlighted risks that fallout could pose — not only to Algerian populations, but also nearby African nations. Widespread resistance to French explosions surfaced within pan-Arab solidarities in Egypt, campaigns for Maghrebi sovereignty in Tunisia and Morocco, dueling approaches to West African leadership in Ghana and Nigeria, and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

Against Empire, Against Exposure 

Saharan fallout materialized what anti-colonial and anti-bomb activists memorably called “nuclear imperialism.” The French test sites occupied colonized and contested territory in the Algerian Sahara, and fallout threatened to breach the national borders of independent African states, violate their hard-won sovereignty, and poison their people and environment. Data collected in the wake of the atmospheric blasts proved many of these fears right, despite the era’s scientific consensus that most of the radiation exposure had not reached levels high enough to endanger human health.

African leaders raised important questions about radiation risk and the global nuclear order: Which places (if any) should serve as nuclear test sites? Whose bodies and which environments should have to tolerate the fallout? Which individuals and institutions should take measurements? Who got to decide how much was safe and on what grounds? If Saharan blasts appeared as yet another example of French revanchism in Algeria during an era of decolonization, they also loomed as an especially pernicious form of colonial exploitation, one whose effects could prove durable and difficult to assess.

The International Arena

African leaders brought their concerns about Saharan fallout before international institutions where they had recently gained standing. They pushed a resolution of censure through the UN General Assembly, threatened further debate in the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, and forced the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to consider if its mission should include assisting African member states with fallout monitoring.

Nuclear powers worried African interventions could bring stricter oversight and wider opposition to atmospheric testing in particular and nuclear weapons in general. They wanted to reassure African nations that Saharan fallout posed no health risks. African leaders, however, seized the opportunity to forge scientific partnerships and build technical capacity for fallout monitoring. My archival research showed that Tunisia obtained gummed-film equipment from the United States; Ghana hosted a Canadian technician for several weeks to establish monitoring stations; and Nigeria developed a multi-sited network for fallout measurements as part of the decolonization process that delivered Nigerian independence from the United Kingdom.

African Institutions 

The bilateral partnerships proved short-lived, but in each case these relationships led North and West African governments to invest in radiation protection from fallout and other sources. This concern shaped the agenda of Tunisia’s Commission for Scientific Research and Atomic Energy, Ghana’s Atomic Energy Commission, and Nigeria’s Federal Radiation Protection Service during the 1960s.

African responses to French nuclear explosions in the Algerian Sahara ranged from social movements and diplomatic maneuvers to technology transfer and new institutions for nuclear sciences. In many fields, and in several countries, Saharan fallout charted African participation in reconstruction of the global nuclear order around the problem of weapons testing.

Austin R. Cooper is a predoctoral researcher at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and a PhD candidate in History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.