The French Association for the Control of Radioactivity in the West (Acro) has measured abnormal levels of cesium-137 in dust from the Sahara that reached France and Switzerland last month.
These are values that are not dangerous to health, but they contain an irony: they come from nuclear tests carried out by France in the Algerian desert in the 1960s. “France collects the radioactivity it sowed 60 years ago.
In a statement the association explains that the samples were taken on February 6, in a car covered by Saharan dust parked in the Jura area (on the border with Switzerland).
The Saharan dust phenomenon is relatively normal in France, although this time it had an unusual concentration and covered the snow in the Alps with a golden layer. It also left beautiful sunsets and sunrises that filled the most popular social networks. It was even visible from space with Earth observation satellites.
Analysis of the samples unequivocally revealed abnormal levels of cesium-137, a radioactive component that is not present in nature, and that necessarily comes from fission caused by a nuclear explosion.
“Considering homogeneous deposits over a wide area, based on this analytical result, ACRO estimates that 80,000 Bq per km2 of cesium – 137” explains the statement. Cesium 137 loses half of its radioactive power every 30 years. In 200 years it only conserves 1% of its radioactivity, according to the association scientist Pierre Barbey.
They are levels without any risk to health.
But mostly they are a reminder for France that radioactivity is created, but it is very difficult to destroy, and it can always go back to your backyard. “This radioactive contamination – which is still observable at a long distance 60 years after the nuclear shots – reminds us of the situation of perennial radioactive contamination in the Sahara for which France is responsible” concludes Acro.
Algeria asks France for reparation
Precisely at the beginning of February, Algeria, through General Bouzid Boufrioua, asked France, “which persists in its refusal to hand over the maps that reveal the location of its nuclear remains”, “to assume its historical responsibilities.” The French nuclear tests in the Sahara, which continued at an underground site in In Ekker until 1966, “caused many casualties among the local population and damage to the environment that unfortunately continues to this day,” added the senior Algerian army officer.
Radioactive desert dust?
If anyone knows the dust of the Saharan desert well, it is canaries. From the Laboratory of Medical Physics and Environmental Radioactivity of the University of La Laguna, in Tenerife, they explain to us that it is a known phenomenon, which has been studied for several decades.
“The dust of the Saharan desert or calima, as it is called in the Canary Islands, sometimes contains potassium 40, naturally present in minerals and also cesium 137 from nuclear tests by the French Government” explains Professor Pedro Salazar Carballo. He adds that haze can also carry lead-210, from natural sources.
The laboratory recently published a scientific study on the radiation levels present in the brutal Saharan dust storm of the 2020 carnivals, which forced the closure of airports, keeping hundreds of tourists trapped.
It precisely detected high levels of potassium 40 and cesium 137. It happens whenever the wind brings dust from the interior of the Algerian desert, where France carried out its first nuclear tests.
Professor Salazar Carballo insists that the levels are well below those considered harmful. The laboratory makes constant measurements that are sent to the Nuclear Safety Council. In years of measurements, alarming levels brought by the haze have never been measured.
Of course, the laboratory was able to detect radioactive remains from the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents, also without any danger to life. Salazar Carballo recalls that although she is a great unknown and causes fear, we live with natural radioactivity constantly “In reality, what most exposes us to radioactivity is the natural radon that emanates naturally from the soil itself,” he explains. “It is estimated that between 5% and 14% of lung cancers are due to the radon gas that we breathe, especially in underground and closed spaces.” Remember that more and more building regulations are taking steps to reduce long-term exposures to this all-natural, radioactive gas.
Salazar Carballo also recalls the important biological role of Saharan dust, capable of carrying nutrients and minerals such as iron to areas that do not have it naturally, such as the Amazon rainforest.
euronews has contacted the Government of the Canary Islands, which has not given any response on the matter.
New episode of Saharan dust this week
We are still in the middle of an episode of Saharan dust in Western Europe and there have already been at least three this season.
A fairly thick cloud is crossing the Mediterranean covering parts of Spain, France, the United Kingdom, the Benelux and Germany. Precipitation is expected that will cause the phenomenon of mud rain.
And as the episode affects the interior of Algeria again, surely the particles will also carry some cesium 137 from that ‘Gerboise bleue’ or Blue Gerbil “, a code name for the first French nuclear test carried out on February 13, 1960. Nothing alarming – beyond the precaution for possible respiratory problems due to particle concentration – but a reminder, yes, of the persistent trace of atomic energy.