In Ekker and Reggane
The two nuclear testing grounds that France
used in the Sahara desert in Algeria
for its first atomic bombs in the 1960s.
The very first of France's A-bombs, code-named Gerboise Bleue, was detonated at the CSEM, Centre Saharien d'Expérimentations Militaires ('Saharan Military Experiments Center'), near Reggane
on 13 February 1960 – right in the middle of the Algerian War (cf. Algiers
– war museum). It was followed by another four atmospheric tests at the site.
After Algeria gained its independence in 1962, France still carried on nuclear testing in the Algerian desert (under some kind of a special agreement), but moved to a different site near In Ekker, where testing recommenced underground.
Still some irradiation affecting the health of both local tribespeople and French soldiers occurred, especially on one occasion when even a couple of high-ranking top brass (for once) were affected. This is known as the "Beryl incident" (one in a series of tests named after precious stones) on 1 May 1962. What happened was that the seal didn't hold on the underground tunnel in which the explosion took place and radioactive material was blasted into the air. This affected a few soldiers directly with high dosages of radiation, but also numerous others who had to flee their shelters as the wind had unexpectedly turned, driving a radioactive cloud towards them. Two high-ranking politicians were also present, Defence Minister Pierre Messmer and Gaston Palewski; the latter attributed the leukaemia he contracted (and which he eventually died of in 1984) to the Beryl incident.
French nuclear testing in Algeria came to an end in 1967 – all other French tests were conducted in faraway French Polynesia (especially at Mururoa; cf. Marquesas
) even up to 1996, long after the other big nuclear nations (especially the USA
) had banned all such tests.
The sites today are still a bone of contention between Algeria
. The Algerians feel that France has never properly apologized for the testing in their former colony, nor ever cleared up the sites sufficiently. Birth defects and cancers amongst the population are blamed on France's "colonial crimes" at these sites.
As for visiting them, well, there isn't exactly much left to see, except some ruins and twisted metal (some still radioactive!). The In Ekker site is somewhat more accessible as it is just west of the main N1 trans-Saharan road. The test site near Reggane is further off any regular roads (west of the N6 desert road).
Reportedly there are fences but no guards. But whether it is advisable to poke around either of these sites is of course highly questionable, especially given the reports of residual radiation levels said to be harmful if you stayed longer than 10 minutes or so (although that is probably too exaggerated a warning).
But you could – and indeed have to – drive past and have a quick look at the mountains where the In Ekker tests took place en route south to Tamanrasset, the gateway to the Ahaggar Mountains and National Park, ca. 900 miles (1500 km) south of Algiers
, or even onwards to the border with Niger.