PARIS - The French government offered for the first time Tuesday to compensate victims of nuclear tests in Algeria and the South Pacific, bowing to decades of pressure by people sickened by radiation - and seeking to soothe France's conscience.
"It's time for our country to be at peace with itself, at peace thanks to a system of compensation and reparations," French Defense Minister Herve Morin said in presenting a draft law on the payouts.
Victims cautiously welcomed the move, nearly 50 years after France conducted its first atomic tests. But they said it was only a first step toward healing wounds left by explosions that sent blinding white flashes cascading over French Polynesia and the Sahara Desert.
The French government will set aside some euro10 million ($13.5 million) for the compensation for the first year, Morin said. The U.S. government, by comparison, has approved more than $1.38 billion in compensation to victims of nuclear tests since the approval of the Radiation Exposure Protection Act in 1990.
Some 150,000 people, including civilian and military personnel, were on site for the 210 tests France carried out, both in the atmosphere and underground, in the Sahara Desert and the South Pacific from 1960-1996, Morin said.
French army veteran Pierre Leroy recalled being present when a nuclear test misfired in the Sahara in 1962.
"We were 19, 20 years old. They told us, 'There are no risks, it's not dangerous,'" he said. "There were no precautions."
The bill allows for compensation on a case-by-case basis.
It will be presented in the coming months to parliament, and while it is likely to pass, victims' groups are pushing to add amendments to broaden the number of people who will be eligible for payouts.
The draft law only allows for compensation for those who developed health problems linked to the explosions, not all 150,000 people present during them. Descendants of victims who have since died will be entitled to apply for payouts, Morin said.
Morin said anyone with health problems who resided near the test sites would be eligible to seek payouts under the bill - including Algerians, whose country won independence from France in 1962, after the nuclear test program had started.
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Morin defended the need for the tests at the time when France was building up its nuclear arsenal during the Cold War.
These tests "allowed us to obtain an independent force of dissuasion, guaranteeing the protection of our vital interests and allowing us to be a power respected in the world alongside the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council," Morin said.
All five permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council possess nuclear arsenals: the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China.
In Britain, no formal government compensation program exists. Nearly 1,000 veterans of Christmas Island nuclear tests in the 1950s are seeking to sue Ministry of Defense for negligence, saying they were warned of potential dangers only after the experiments and were not given protective clothing. Lawyers for the servicemen say the ministry argues the case should be dropped because too much time has passed.
Veterans of nuclear tests say time should not be an issue, and note they have been demanding compensation for decades.
Leroy warned that the "case-by-case" study could work against the victims.
"They are going to see if people smoke, and they will say, 'OK, you have lung cancer, it's because you smoke. Your liver hurts? It's because you drank,'" he said.
Helene Luc, a former senator who fought long for such official compensation, said, "The fact of having a draft law is the first victory."
France tested its first atomic bomb on Feb. 13, 1960, in the Algerian Sahara. Most French nuclear tests - a total of 123 - were detonated in the volcanic rock beneath Mururoa Atoll, about 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) southeast of Tahiti. France halted atmospheric testing in 1974, and performed its last underground blasts at Mururoa in 1996. As recently as 2003, then-President Jacques Chirac said during a visit to Tahiti that tests had shown no ill effects to health from France's nuclear detonations in Polynesia.
Associated Press writers Scott Sayare and Cecile Brisson contributed to this report.