Thursday, April 21, 2022 - 9:45am

Gershwin & Bennett Family Collaborative Classroom at the Biotech Commons (36th & Hamilton Walk)

Saharan Fallout: French Explosions in Algeria and the Politics of Nuclear Risk during African Decolonization (1960–66)

Between 1960 and 1966, French forces began to prove their nuclear weapon capabilities by conducting seventeen nuclear explosions in the Algerian Sahara. This dissertation pursues an international history of French nuclear ambitions and the resistance and the criticism that they faced at regional, international, and global scales. It does so by tracking radioactive debris from the French explosions—Saharan fallout—and the scientists, activists, diplomats, and other officials who tracked it during the 1960s. This methodology relies on declassified archives—from France, the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and international organizations—produced for these purposes of nuclear surveillance. Concerns extended beyond the health effects of radiation exposure. The presence of Saharan fallout constellated transnational networks of scientists and technicians across African territories bordering the Algerian desert. It also bred criticism that French explosions violated African sovereignty and heightened geopolitical inequalities during an unprecedented era of decolonization. The French blasts coincided with the Algerian War (1954–62), continued after Algerian Independence, and intersected with other decolonization struggles in neighboring African territories. At the same time, Saharan fallout illuminated processes of Cold War realignment shaped by concerns about nuclear risk during a widening arms race. By examining the relevance of French explosions to decolonization politics and nuclear weapons governance, this dissertation shows how nuclear proliferation and nuclear deterrence cannot fully explain the international controversy generated by Saharan fallout. It shows, instead, how concerns about radiation exposure and perceptions of nuclear risk shaped the making of postcolonial states in North Africa and West Africa, their positions in the global Cold War, and their relations with (former) colonial metropoles in Europe and with prosperous Atlantic allies in North America. This dissertation concludes by evaluating the importance of the Saharan nuclear sites, and ongoing discussions about environmental remediation and victim compensation, in Franco-Algerian relations today.