By Helene Fouquet
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, which represents Parfait and about 7,200 others, made 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.
``It took decades for the state to recognize asbestos as poisonous, maybe it would be good not to repeat the mistake again,'' said Dominique Voynet, a senator of the Green Party, said at the press conference today at the Senate. Veterans and a group of parliamentarians said they'll take their appeal to President Nicolas Sarkozy.
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 Compensation Schemes.
``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 rules.
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 Web site.
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 percent 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 percent have children with illnesses, a 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 any study.
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 left knee.
``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?''
To contact the reporter on this story: Helene Fouquet in Paris at email@example.comLast Updated: June 3, 2008 08:04 EDT