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Dealing with a Nuclear Past: Revisiting the Cases of Algeria and Kazakhstan through a Decolonial Lens

Authors: Leila Hennaoui and Marzhan Nurzhan

Affiliation: Faculty of Law and Political Sciences at Hassiba BenBouali University, Chlef- Algeria, the Department of Social Sciences- University of Basel- Switzerland

Organization/Publisher: The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs 

Date/Place: July 24, 2023/ UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 19

Link: https://doi.org/10.1080/03932729.2023.2234817 

 

Keywords: Nuclear Testing, Nuclear (De)Colonialism, Global South, Nuclear Imperialism, Anti-Nuclear Movements, Nuclear Resistance

 

Brief:

This article explores the connections between colonialism and anti-nuclear movements in Algeria and Kazakhstan. It aims to understand how these movements in the Global South were linked to decolonization in former Soviet and French nuclear test sites, and how the colonial/imperial nature of nuclear testing influenced these movements. Algeria and Kazakhstan were chosen as case studies due to their commitment to nuclear disarmament that is rooted in their historical experiences and the injustices they faced from colonial nuclear testing. 

The article is divided into four main sections: Conceptual Framework, Methodology, Case Studies and Conclusion.

 

The article’s conceptual framework defines four important terms:

  1. 1. Nuclear Colonialism: The authors characterize nuclear colonialism as an extension of colonization and a rhetorical phenomenon. It involves colonial practices within nuclear activities, where the nuclear colonizing state exploits and extracts value from indigenous lands and populations in colonized regions. It also encompasses the use of colonial narratives and discourses by nuclear colonizing states to obscure the resulting harms while emphasizing dominance and national security.
  2. Nuclear Imperialism: This term describes situations in which one state dominates another for nuclear purposes, primarily through weapons testing. In the context of the study, nuclear imperialism was used to analyze how colonizing nations exerted control over indigenous lands, displaced native populations, and exploited resources through nuclear testing, revealing the inherent colonial dynamics and imperialistic tendencies associated with these practices.
  3. Nuclear decolonization, Hennaoui and Nurzhan adopt the definition of decolonization from the Henry M. Jackson School Task Force Report of Winter 2022, which defines it as ‘actions that disrupt colonial structures and contribute to the repair of colonial harms.’
  4. “Anti-nuclear movements as a decolonizing practice.” Existing research mainly focuses on Western anti-nuclear movements against nuclear weapons and power plants. Comparatively little research has explored anti-nuclear movements in the Global South and their connection to anti-colonialism.

The authors attempted to address this gap by exploring various fields of literature, with a primary focus on the aforementioned scholarship related to nuclear colonialism and nuclear imperialism.

 

Turning to the second part of the article, which focuses on methodology, Hennaoui and Nurzhan employed an abductive and explanatory approach to examine the connections between anti-nuclear movements in former Soviet and French nuclear test sites in the Global South and decolonization processes. They adopted a comparative approach, focusing on the cases of Algeria and Kazakhstan, which were chosen due to their geographical parallels, spanning two continents and nearly four decades.

 

After discussing the conceptual and methodological framework, the authors delve into the case studies starting with the Kazakh steppe, where the USSR tested the first atomic bomb codenamed Pervaya molniya (FirstLighting) on 29 August 1949 at the Semipa-latinsk nuclear test site (SNTS), which is a city in Kazakhstan. The Soviet government established the SNTS in 1947 in the Kazakh steppe–an area that, prior to Soviet domination, had been under Russian imperial/colonial occupation.

The authors examine the historical background and assert that Soviet military and scientists selected the area for their nuclear weapons testing program for several reasons:

Its significant distance from major cities to maintain secrecy and avoid intelligence surveillance, its featureless geographical terrain, its proximity to transportation hubs, easy access to construction materials and resources like uranium, and the perception of a low population. 

However, this perception of being “almost uninhabited” was deceptive, as there were rural settlements and villages with tens of thousands of inhabitants located just a few hundred kilometers from the nuclear test sites. This led to the creation of what can be described as a “national sacrifice zone” where lands were declared empty, and the territory was repeatedly wasted.

These experiments resulted in significant economic, political, human, and environmental costs, as evidenced by numerous victim testimonies. The area not only suffered environmental contamination from ionized radiation due to nuclear fallout but also affected approximately 1.5 million people, leading to severe humanitarian consequences. Even today, victims and survivors continue to experience generational health issues, including birth defects, higher mortality rates, cancer, and chronic illnesses. Importantly, the local population remained uninformed about the nuclear weapons testing programs and their potential environmental and health consequences for many years.

Soviet nuclear imperialism had severe consequences, including racism and discrimination based on nationality within the Soviet Union. It led to the destruction of the Kazakh steppe, exploitation of resources, and permanent changes to the local population and landscape through nuclear tests. The article discusses how decolonial movements, like the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement founded in 1989, emerged in response to these issues. This movement, inspired by shared experiences of the Western Shoshone Nation in Nevada and the Kazakhs of Semen, protested against nuclear imperialism near test sites.

Their actions served as a demand for independence. Additionally, the organization’s logo reflects the relationship between Semen and the Western Shoshone Nation. Among the movement’s key goals were closing the SNTS and achieving a global ban on nuclear weapons testing.

The authors confirmed that the anti-nuclear campaign in Kazakhstan successfully ended atomic tests at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site, contributing to a global ban on nuclear testing in the former Soviet Union. This movement formed alliances with international peace groups and indigenous organizations like the Western Shoshone. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Kazakhstan closed the test site on August 29, 1991, now observed as the UN International Day against Nuclear Tests. This denuclearization effort symbolizes Kazakhstan’s path to independence and identity, free from its Soviet nuclear legacy.

 

In the Algerian case study, the authors note that France conducted its first nuclear test in the Algerian Sahara Desert on February 13, 1960, marking its entry into the exclusive club of nuclear powers. This occurred during the challenging period of the Algerian War of Liberation (1955–1962), which ultimately ended 132 years of French colonial rule (1830–1962). The Suez Crisis had spurred the leaders of the Fourth Republic to accelerate their nuclear research program. The Fourth Republic was eager to join the ranks of nuclear-armed nations alongside the US, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom (UK). Consequently, the search for a test site within the empire’s borders led to the selection of the Algerian Sahara as the location for these harmful tests in 1960. After Algeria gained its independence in 1962, Polynesia was chosen as the new test site.

As part of the “Gerboise Bleue”  operation, the French colonial government conducted a total of 17 nuclear tests between 1960 and 1966, including four atmospheric detonations (next to the oasis hamlet of Reggane) and 13 subterranean tests (in the Hoggar Massif close to In Ekker).

The author asserts that the French and Soviet authorities made similar claims regarding the nuclear sites. Both claimed that these sites were chosen for their isolation and emptiness. However, in reality, these sites were home to communities consisting of thousands of indigenous and nomadic people. 

In Algeria, the communities situated at the Reggane and In Ekker test sites suffered the consequences of radiation exposure and a contaminated environment, leading to congenital anomalies, cancer, and various chronic ailments. Tragically, these conditions continue to afflict them to this day.

Additionally, it is evident from historical documents that the French nuclear explosions were far from clean, safe, or controlled. These records reveal that inadequate measures were taken to safeguard the local populace, French personnel, and Algerian manual laborers.

The authors mentioned a crucial point that the French colonial civil and military authorities left the Saharan nuclear test sites in 1966 after disposing of the contaminated equipment and materials there by burying them in the sand, displaying “the slow violence” of French nuclear imperialism that poisoned the Sahara Desert. The poisonous remains and debris from the polluted burial sites to this day continue to seriously harm and poison Saharan lives, resources, and the environment, despite the fact that their locations are unknown.

After France’s announcement of its intention to use Algerian territory to test new atomic bombs, African leaders and organizations expressed concern about the dangers of nuclear fallout in their countries and most condemned the project. In 1959, just a year after Gerboise Bleue, they passed a resolution denouncing the decision to use Africa for nuclear testing at the Monrovia Conference (of independent African states) in Algeria.

A group of 19 members from various countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Ghana, Nigeria, and Basutoland (now Lesotho), with strong support from Ghana’s Convention People’s Party (CPP) and Ghanaian Cabinet funding, joined forces to resist the French nuclear imperialism in the Sahara Desert imposed on Algerians by colonial France.

 Their plan was to occupy the nuclear test site to challenge and prevent French nuclear explosions. Starting from Accra, Ghana, on December 6, 1959, they embarked on a 2,100-mile journey to Reggane in the Algerian Sahara, gaining media attention and public support. However, French military intervention in Burkina Faso and subsequent obstacles led them to abandon the plan after multiple attempts.

The authors further discussed the enigmatic circumstances and the concessions related to the nuclear tests, concluding that the complex interplay between territorial concerns, nuclear testing and the negotiations surrounding the Evian Accords shaped the postcolonial landscape of Algeria. This was a reflection of the delicate balance between political aspirations, health and environmental considerations in the aftermath of decolonization.

 

At the end of the article, Hennaoui and Nurzhan reached several final observations or a result of the comparative analysis, of the case study 

  • Both colonial nuclear powers conducted their initial nuclear testing programs outside their imperial homelands, avoiding testing on their primary or indigenous territories, consistent with a pattern of extractive colonization. France conducted tests in the contested Sahara during the Algerian War of Liberation that lead to today’s independent Algeria. The Soviet Union likewise conducted nuclear tests in the Kazakh steppe at the Semipalatinsk polygon.
  • These colonial powers employed deceptive discursive strategies, including dishonesty, misinformation, and secrecy, regarding their nuclear programs. They falsely claimed that the Algerian Sahara and the Kazakh steppe were uninhabited areas, and therefore suitable for containing radioactive contamination. They also concealed nuclear knowledge, spread deliberate misinformation about the risks of testing, and continued these practices post-testing and post-colonization.
  • Both governments continue to employ these deceptive practices by withholding vital information and not disclosing nuclear archives. Algeria, for example, still awaits critical topographic maps for decontamination, and Kazakhstan lacks a comprehensive understanding of the humanitarian impact of nuclear tests. Furthermore, governments, including the French and Russian ones, have failed to educate their populations about the humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear tests in their former colonies.
  • Additionally, French and Soviet nuclear strategists, seemingly insensitive to local populations and the environment, were willing to expose Algerian, Kazakh, and neighboring populations to radiation risks that would have been considered unacceptable in their own metropolitan centers like Paris or Moscow.

Overall, these case studies reveal the persistent colonial narratives and practices surrounding nuclear testing, with far-reaching implications for affected populations and the environment.

 

By: Chourouk Mestour, Ph.D student in International Relations

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