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Long sought bill jumps first hurdle

SUVA, Fiji (Oceania Flash, July 1, 2009) – France’s National Assembly on Tuesday endorsed a landmark bill to compensate, for the first time, its veterans from the 210 nuclear tests carried out between 1960 and 1996 both in the Sahara desert and later French Polynesia.

The Bill, which had been prepared over the past few months by French Defence minister Hervé Morin, received the support of 300 members of parliament from the current ruling government coalition; but the opposition parties either abstained or voted against.

The legislative process now involves another vote from France’s Upper House, the Senate, in coming weeks.

Defence Minister Hervé Morin said in May when he unveiled the bill that he expected it to come into effect by the end of the year.

The compensation process "must ensure integral redress for damage suffered", the French Cabinet said earlier this year.

The Bill is designed to set up a compensation mechanism for those of the nuclear veterans whose illness is recognised a being the direct result of their exposure to nuclear radiation on the French military testing sites.

In French Polynesia, the testing facility, known as the CEP (Centre d'Expérimentations Nucléaires) was based on the Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls.

The tests took place between 1966 and 1996, when the CEP cased to operate.

The Bill, which was endorsed late May by the French Cabinet, allows claims from persons who can justify they have resided in the testing zones, during the periods determined by the Bill, and who are suffering illnesses on a list of diseases, are eligible.The compensation committee would be chaired by a magistrate and consist mainly of medical practitioners.

Its task would be to study each case in order to determine whether there is a link between the person’s presence on the site and its illness, it would then make recommendations to the French Defence ministry.

A list of some eighteen illnesses (including leukaemia, skin, stomach, bladder, brain, bones, lungs, liver, rectum, kidney cancers) has been drawn up.

In the face of reservations expressed by local veterans’ associations during the past two months, regarding the scope of eligibility of the compensations, some amendments were made, including extending the eligibility period that now ranges from 1966 (when the nuclear tests began in French Polynesia) until 1998.

Another new element was introduced: whereas earlier versions only included persons living or working at the time on Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls, the only other test located elsewhere, on Hao and Taravoa atolls, in 1974, has now been included.

Critics of the Bill, including veterans associations in French Polynesia, are contesting the fact that the compensation board, to be set up as part of the claims process, de facto gives too much power to the French State and the Defence ministry.

Local Association Moruroa e Tatou last week maintained its view that Defence officials, in the compensation process, could be seen as "judges and party".

But nuclear veterans association (AVEN) President Michel Verger reacted positively after the vote, saying "hopes are rising, this is Act 1, but Act 2 is still to come".

French Polynesian leaders, like local legislative assembly Speaker Philip Schyle, in recent days predicted the Bill would probably not mark the end of the road but the beginning of another labour of "lobbying".

Responding to earlier criticisms from nuclear veterans in French Polynesia, Morin said he wanted the French compensation process to be "just, but rigorous".

He said potentially, about 150,000 individuals (both civilian and former defence staff) were potentially be in a position to claim compensation from medical conditions, once their cases were examined individually.

Another criticism earlier levelled was that in its initial form, the Bill introduced the notion of "threshold" of a minimum radiation exposure level.

Morin said this had now been rectified, but each case would be assessed by an "independent" team made up of medical doctors and chaired by a magistrate.

The claims tribunal would be provided with the United Nations’ list of nuclear-related diseases and illnesses, Morin pointed out, saying this followed a specific request from nuclear veterans associations.

13.5 million US dollars earmarked

The French defence minister, who has been saying since last year that France needed to come to terms with the nuclear issue, said an initial fund of some ten million Euros (13.5 million US dollars) had been earmarked for the first twelve months.

He said the fund would later be replenished by the French defence ministry, based on an average of compensation claims granted during the previous year.

"If the claim is accepted, redress for the damage will be integral … The commission will rely on scientific and medical data from the relevant United Nations body. As opposed to what happened in the past, it will no longer be up to the plaintiff to prove the cause and effect link between exposure to radiation and his or her illness. To deny a compensation claim, the (French) State will have to demonstrate that the pathology is not radio-induced", Morin said.

Drifting away from the "clean tests" stance

Until recently, the official position from the French government regarding the possible consequences of nuclear testing on human health had been to claim the tests conducted in the African Sahara (on a site known as "Reggane") and in French Polynesia were harmless and clean.

"But it was high time France come clean with its conscience. The more we refuse to tackle the health consequences that those tests could have entailed, the more we encourage the irrational, rumours, even fantasies. It was also important to avoid long and risky court proceedings for our fellow citizens who … have allowed our country to be part of the great military powers of this planet", Morin said late March this year.

Between 1960 and 1996, France conducted some 210 nuclear tests, first in what was then the French Sahara (Algeria) and since 1966 in French Polynesia’s atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa.

In French Polynesia, between 1966 and 1996, some 193 nuclear tests were carried out in what was called the Centre d’Expérimentations du Pacifique (CEP, Pacific Testing Centre), on the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa.

The CEP was first the scene of 41 atmospheric tests and later (in 1974) the tests went underground in boreholes deep under the sea, for a total of 193 tests altogether.

The CEP was closed down and dismantled in 1996, after a final testing campaign.

In February this year, the French equivalent to an ombudsman, the Médiateur de la République, Jean-Paul Delevoye, publicly encouraged a "quick" setting up of a "just redress process" for such victims.

Morin’s bill is widely regarded as being inspired from the ombudsman’s guidelines

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