FREEDOM OF INFORMATION AND THE FRENCH ATOM BOMB

The dangers of atomic bomb tests like this one – conducted by France in the Sahara on February 13, 1960 – contributed to the rise of the right to know movement. (Photograph by ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Stock Photo)

“The obligation to endure gives us the right to know.”1Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1962; New York, NY: Mariner Books, 2002), 14. Anyone who has read Silent Spring, the 1962 book that “ignited”2Eliza Griswold, “How ‘Silent Spring’ Ignited the Environmental Movement,” The New York Times, September 21, 2012. the environmental movement, will remember that phrase. Indeed, it was one of author and biologist Rachel Carson’s favourites.3Samuel A. Tower, “Rachel Carson is Pictured on New 17-Cent Issue,” The New York Times, May 31, 1981. Since then, it has been repeatedly used to argue for the disclosure of information about how science, corporations and governments may be damaging us and our environment.4David C. Vladeck, “Information Access – Surveying the Current Legal Landscape of Federal Right-to-Know Laws,” Texas Law Review 86, no. 7 (June 2008): 1787. But French scientist and philosopher Jean Rostand, who coined that phrase on April 21, 1960 while accepting the Kalinga Prize for the popularization of science,5 The UNESCO Courier, “Jean Rostand Receives Kalinga Prize,” The UNESCO Courier, June, 1960 was concerned with a specific kind of damage.

Earlier that month, on April 1, France completed its second atomic bomb test. The test, which took place at the atomic proving grounds at Reggan in southwestern Algeria, exploded with a force of “less than 19,000 tons of TNT, which was the power of the United States atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.”6W. Granger Blair, “Compact A-Bomb Closer in France: Sizable Step Taken Toward Operational Device with Second Sahara Blast,” The New York Times, April 2, 1960. That explosion, and the 16 others that France detonated in the Sahara, “vitrified vast tracts of desert with heat and plutonium and left a legacy of uncontained radiation that is still crippling inhabitants.”7Johnny Magdaleno, “Algerians Suffering from French Atomic Legacy, 55 Years After Nuke Tests,” Al Jazeera, March 1, 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/1/algerians-suffering-from-french-atomic-legacy-55-years-after-nuclear-tests.html accessed March 12, 2018

At the time of the second detonation, representatives of 22 Asian and African nations called for a special session of the United Nations General Assembly to consider those tests.8Special to The New York Times, “French A-Tests Scored: Africans and Asians Again Ask Special U.N. Session,” The New York Tines, April 6, 1960. But, on April 14, those representatives only had 36 of the 42 votes they needed to do so, out of the 82 nations casting ballots. According to The New York Times, one reason for the defeat of the special session was a feeling that since French President Charles de Gaulle was going to be in the city between April 26-27 “it would have been discourteous to take this means of protesting his decision to make France a nuclear power.”9Thomas J. Hamilton, “Neutrals in the U.N.: Asian-African Differences Pointed Up by Defeat of Move on Atom Tests,” The New York Times, April 17, 1960.

That vote happened just seven days after an American Chemical Society symposium designed to “describe in detail the path of nuclear particles from bombs through the soil, plants, food, animals, and milk into human bone and tissue.”10Frank Carey, “85 per cent of fallout now down,” The Washington Post, April 8, 1960. During the symposium, Columbia University geochemistry professor John Laurence Kulp said that plants used for food may have picked up “less radioactive poison than earlier calculations indicated.”11Editorial, “Qualified Comfort,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, April 7, 1960. However, Wright Haskell Langham, the group leader for the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory’s biomedical research division, also said fallout from past nuclear weapon tests may have increased “the incidence of bone cancer and leukemia 5 to 10 per cent in the generations presently growing up.”12Editorial, “Qualified Comfort,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, April 7, 1960.

It was against this backdrop, at UNESCO House in Paris, that Rostand – whose father was the author of Cyrano de Bergerac – said, “Any distinction between the man of science and the ordinary man is no longer admissible, any more than a form of segregation based on an inequality of knowledge. Whether we like it or not, the laboratory henceforward opens right onto the street. Science not only affects us at any given moment of our day-to-day existence, it dogs us, it pursues us. Have we not all of us been transformed into involuntary guinea pigs ever since atomic fission, without asking our opinion, began to plant harmful particles in our bones?”13Jean Rostand, “Popularization of Science,” Science 131, no. 3412 (May 20, 1960): 1491.

As a result, he continued, “The obligation to endure gives us the right to know. The time is clearly coming when the man in the street will have his say with regard to the great social, national, international and moral issues latterly raised by certain applications of science; and it may be that the specialist himself, weary of bearing on his own the weight of his too-heavy responsibilities will rejoice at finding understanding and support in public awareness.”14Jean Rostand, “Popularization of science,” Science 131, no. 3412 (May 20, 1960): 1491.

References   [ + ]

1. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1962; New York, NY: Mariner Books, 2002), 14.
2. Eliza Griswold, “How ‘Silent Spring’ Ignited the Environmental Movement,” The New York Times, September 21, 2012.
3. Samuel A. Tower, “Rachel Carson is Pictured on New 17-Cent Issue,” The New York Times, May 31, 1981.
4. David C. Vladeck, “Information Access – Surveying the Current Legal Landscape of Federal Right-to-Know Laws,” Texas Law Review 86, no. 7 (June 2008): 1787.
5. The UNESCO Courier, “Jean Rostand Receives Kalinga Prize,” The UNESCO Courier, June, 1960
6. W. Granger Blair, “Compact A-Bomb Closer in France: Sizable Step Taken Toward Operational Device with Second Sahara Blast,” The New York Times, April 2, 1960.
7. Johnny Magdaleno, “Algerians Suffering from French Atomic Legacy, 55 Years After Nuke Tests,” Al Jazeera, March 1, 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/1/algerians-suffering-from-french-atomic-legacy-55-years-after-nuclear-tests.html accessed March 12, 2018
8. Special to The New York Times, “French A-Tests Scored: Africans and Asians Again Ask Special U.N. Session,” The New York Tines, April 6, 1960.
9. Thomas J. Hamilton, “Neutrals in the U.N.: Asian-African Differences Pointed Up by Defeat of Move on Atom Tests,” The New York Times, April 17, 1960.
10. Frank Carey, “85 per cent of fallout now down,” The Washington Post, April 8, 1960.
11, 12. Editorial, “Qualified Comfort,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, April 7, 1960.
13. Jean Rostand, “Popularization of Science,” Science 131, no. 3412 (May 20, 1960): 1491.
14. Jean Rostand, “Popularization of science,” Science 131, no. 3412 (May 20, 1960): 1491.

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