French atomic lawsuit

Landmark suit by nuclear test veterans hinges on scientific evidence of cancer link

Dec 3, 2004
Clare Kittredge(

A landmark lawsuit by French atomic bomb test veterans, pitting scientific questions about radiation's dangers against an ever-mounting roster of morbidity and mortality, has come into sharper public focus this week.

The lawsuit alleges "collective negligence," involuntary homicide, and more on behalf of the veterans of 210 French atomic tests in the Sahara and French Polynesia between 1960 and 1996. The legal and scientific arguments got a highly visible public airing on Thursday night (December 2) when French national television broadcast an interview in which a key official in charge of the atomic tests of the sixties acknowledged government "imprudence."

A lawyer for the plaintiffs told The Scientist he was on the set of the television program when former Minister of Defense Pierre Messmer said the government committed such "imprudences" that he urged then president Charles de Gaulle to abolish the French Atomic Energy Commission.

"The French government's position has always been that the tests were clean and that there was neither contamination nor irradiation except for a few isolated individual cases," lawyer Jean-Paul Teissonniere, told The Scientist. "And here we have the minister from that era saying imprudences were committed. It's the first time."

That disclosure is the latest development in the suit by veterans who claim radiation exposure caused excess cancers and other health woes. The French government has pledged full cooperation with the case, but has until now denied responsibility for the veterans' health problems.

The case occurs amid persistent difficulty establishing scientific proof that radiation exposure caused a particular cancer to surface years later. "The big scientific question is do we have enough elements to establish the link between disease and exposure?" said Teissonniere.

The plaintiffs plan to bolster their case with testimony from scientific experts such as Michel Fernex from the Medical Faculty of Basel. The judges will also have access to secret government archives to resolve scientific questions about what was known about the role of low-dose radiation and its effect on DNA and the cardiovascular system, according to Barillot.

Richard Clapp, an environmental epidemiologist at Boston University, was part of a team of scientists who reviewed studies of US atomic testing veterans in the late seventies.

Clapp told The Scientist there is a long history of research showing that people who survived the atomic bombs in Japan and US atomic testing veterans suffered a number of diseases including thyroid disease, thyroid cancer, and leukemia.

"The effects of environmental exposure to radiation from bombs were well known by the sixties," said Clapp.

The French lawsuit was filed November 2003. No court hearings have yet been scheduled—a sign, say plaintiffs, of the government's embarrassment about the case.

Teissonniere acknowledges that "absolute" scientific proof of a link between radiation exposure and cancer years later is impossible. But he promises to show enough of a link in these cases to satisfy French law requiring him to show elements that are "serious, precise, and concordant."

"It's always possible to contest a scientific link. But if we can show that the elements are 'serious, precise, and concordant,' the judge can say there is a link, and we feel the case we have put together allows a judge to see a link," Teissonniere said.