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Cesium-137 detected in the Sahara sand cloud that crossed France

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At the beginning of February 2021, a cloud of sand dust crossed France. However, this contained traces of French nuclear tests in the Sahara in the early 1960s. After analyzing samples, researchers found cesium-137, a radioactive element which is reminiscent of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

No health hazard

On February 6, 2021, a cloud of sand dust crossed France from the Sahara. An article published by France 3 regions gave the floor to Pierre Barbey, radiation protection expert at the University of Caen. The specialist recovered a sample from the windshield of his car near Chapelle des Bois (Doubs) in the Jura massif. Also an advisor for the Association for the Control of Radioactivity in the West (ACRO), Pierre Barbey says he clearly identified cesium 137.

“It is an artificial radioelement which is therefore not naturally present in the sand and which is a product resulting from the nuclear fission brought into play during a nuclear explosion”, explained the person concerned.

For Pierre Barbey, he fell back 80,000 Bq (becquerels) per km² of cesium 137. The inhabitants of the Doubs department could have been afraid, given that the specters of the terrible nuclear disasters of Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) are still present in people’s minds. However, this value is fortunately not synonymous with danger to health. According to the expert, the element in question has a 30-year lifespan. However, the latter loses half of its radioactivity every 30 years. Let us mention the fact that after seven 30-year cycles, only 1% of radioactive substances remains.

A reminder of France’s actions

ACRO believes that its study was not intended to identify a possible danger. Indeed, the researchers were certain that would not be the case. On the other hand, it was a question of recalling that France practiced nuclear tests in other countries. Pierre Barbey reminds that today, populations live on these traces of cesium 137 still contaminating certain sites. Between 1960 and 1966, no less than 17 tests were carried out in the south of Algeria, a country still at the time considered to be a French department.

The very first nuclear test took place on February 13, 1960. Code name: Gerboise bleue (see below). With a power of 70 kilotons, this test had a scale three or four times larger than the bomb thrown on Hiroshima (Japan) in August 1945 by the United States.

Credits: CEA Archive / Wikipedia

After the signing of the Evian agreements in March 1962, experiments in the Sahara were only possible until July 1967. France then concentrated on Polynesia for its next trials, the very first of which took place on the atoll. de Moruroa in 1966. However, the President of the Republic Jacques Chirac will announce the official end of French nuclear tests 30 years later, in 1996.


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