PARIS The French government will compensate victims of past nuclear tests and has earmarked an initial 10 million euros (9 million pounds) to do so, Defence Minister Herve Morin was quoted as saying on Tuesday.
The French state had long refused to officially recognise a link between its testing of nuclear bombs, which ended in 1996, and health complaints reported by both military and civilian staff involved in the tests.
"(French) governments believed for a long time that opening the door to compensation would pose a threat to the very significant efforts made by France to have credible nuclear deterrent," Morin told Le Figaro newspaper.
"But it was time for France to be true to its conscience," he said.
France tested nuclear weapons in Algeria between 1960 and 1966, then in French Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean between 1966 and 1996. It conducted a total of 210 tests.
Morin said in November that he planned to present a bill in 2009 setting out the terms of compensation schemes but he had previously given few details.
"About 150,000 civil and military workers are theoretically affected," Morin was quoted as saying by Le Figaro.
He said an independent commission of doctors led by a magistrate would examine claims on a case-by-case basis and if it recognised health damage linked to nuclear testing, the state would fully compensate the individuals.
"A first batch of 10 million euros has already been earmarked for the first year (of the compensation scheme) in the Defence Ministry budget," he said.
Morin said the government had released its archives on the conditions under which the tests were carried out and their impact on the environment, and these documents were being examined by eminent doctors.
Staff who took part in the French tests as well as residents of areas close to the testing zones have long complained of health consequences including leukaemia and other forms of cancer. There have been numerous court cases.
In the latest one, in February, 12 former soldiers suffering from grave diseases took their claims for compensation to an appeals court in Paris to try and force the government to recognise a link with the tests. The case is ongoing.
Health and environmental campaigners denounced France's nuclear tests for decades.
Hostility to the tests reached its climax in the wake of the 1985 sinking by French secret agents of environmental group Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior ship in Auckland, New Zealand.
The French acted to prevent the ship from disrupting nuclear tests, but the attack was made public and became an international scandal and a public relations disaster for Paris.
(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Louise Ireland)