| By Helene Fouquet
2008, June 3 (Bloomberg) -- On May 1, 1962, Lucien
Parfait watched the In-Eker Mountain in the southern desert of Algeria
tremble and fissure under a black cloud full of dust.
Parfait, 68, witnessed one of France's 210
atomic tests from a distance of 800 meters (2,625 feet) with only a white
cotton overall for protection. The former French army draftee, who'd dug
tunnels in the mountain to place the bomb, is among thousands of people
who say they were exposed to radiation from atomic tests between 1960 and
1996 in France's former Algerian colony and in the Polynesian atolls of
Mururoa and Fangataufa.
"The mountain cracked and a black cloud
burst out, with the wind pushing the irradiated cloud in our direction,''
Parfait wrote in a four-page letter sent to the French Ministry of Defense.
The test he witnessed was called ``Beryl'' and had a leak, he said, adding
that he lost an eye, underwent 30 surgical operations on his face and has
skin and jawbone cancer.
The Association of Veterans of Nuclear Tests
(AVEN), which represents Parfait and
about 7,200 others, will make their case for compensation before French
senators today. Parfait said in the letter e-mailed to Bloomberg by the
association that his earlier efforts have fallen on deaf ears because the
defense ministry won't recognize most illnesses purported to be linked
to the tests. Parfait, who lives in southern France, was unable to comment
personally because he's too ill to speak on the phone, his wife said.
Veterans say they're banking on developments
in the U.K., where the government said in April that it will pay compensation
if a court rules that there's a direct link between exposure to nuclear
tests and illnesses suffered.
"Not all of the 150,000 people who worked
on the atomic- test sites have been exposed to ionizing radiation,''
said Marcel Jurien de la Graviere, who represents France's Defense and
Industry Ministries on nuclear security. "The state's position is to
ask those with claims to detail their job at the time and show the dose
they've been exposed to.''
France last year asked the Paris-based Academy
of Sciences to appoint three experts with access to classified defense
ministry documents to assess the impact of the tests on people and the
environment in Polynesia. It also started an epidemiological survey in
the four atolls surrounding the Polynesian territories.
The developments are among the first signs
that the French government is looking more closely into claims by veterans
and civilians. The last of France's nuclear tests was conducted under President
Jacques Chirac in 1996, amid a global uproar.
Starting in January, the ministry has offered
a free checkup by a military doctor for those who've been on nuclear sites,
a page on the French defense ministry's Web site says.
Last year, the ministry, which had previously
appealed veterans' lawsuits, accepted a ruling that there was a direct
link between the thyroid cancer of Michel Cariou, 70, a former army officer,
and the fact that he'd worked near the open-air Polynesian atomic test
site of Mururoa from 1966 to 1972.
"It is true that we left these people like
orphans, with no response for 10 years,'' said Jurien de la Graviere.
"Maybe we should have started responding to their claims earlier.''
In the U.K., the claims are handled under
the War Pension and the Armed Forces
"Where there is a proven legal liability,
compensation is paid,'' an official at the U.K. Ministry of Defense
in London said, declining to be identified in accordance with ministry
U.S. Compensation Act
The U.S. passed a Radiation Exposure Compensation
Act in 1990. It has conducted radiation surveys in the Marshall Islands
and in Nevada to measure exposure of people at the tests sites or living
around the venues. The U.S. conducted 1,030 tests between 1945 and 1992,
and 24 joint tests with the U.K., according to the Brookings Institution
U.S. compensation methods don't work for France
since the French "levels of radiation are nowhere near those of U.S.
tests,'' Jurien de la Graviere said.
About 72% of those present at French open-air
explosions have cancer, the veterans' association says, citing its studies.
Those who were near the site of the underground tests are two times more
likely to have cancer than the average among the French population. Also,
more than 30% have children with illnesses, an 1,800-member panel from
the association showed.
The defense ministry says the survey is partial
and not representative. The association says the ministry has not completed
For veterans it's a case of the government
letting them down, says Michel Picard, 61, a former commanding officer
in the French Air Force. On Sept 14, 1974, he flew through an atomic cloud
to collect dust for tests. He later suffered a benign bone tumor on his
"We just want recognition from our country
for the work we did to serve it,'' he said in a phone interview. "The
silence of the army just revolts me. How can they continue to be so deaf