Working on the GAMMA RAYLROAD: Nuclear Transport in France

by Nolwenn Weiler
January 9, 2012
translated from French

Nolwenn Weiler

Two or three trains carrying radioactive waste of nuclear fuel move throughout France every day. These cargoes are considered to be “of no danger” for the railway workers involved in their transport, according to the SNCF (French national railways) and AREVA. However, in the absence of specific precautionary measures, some workers are concerned. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that in the future, under privatization of the railways, these high risk loads will not be handled by private companies that are less concerned with safety.
138,000 kilometers: that’s the distance traveled each year by nuclear cargoes on French railways. “You hear a lot of talk about trains carrying waste from foreign countries which is sent back later after being treated in La Hague, in Normandy. But these are not the most common loads,” says Michel, an SNCF worker since the 1980s. “Most of the wastes travelling on the rails are French.”

2 to 3 nuclear trains per day

They depart from France’s 18 nuclear power plants toward the reprocessing center in La Hague, on the Cotentin Peninsula. Some of the reprocessed wastes stay there, stored above ground. Others are sent off again. Uranium produced by reprocessing goes to Pierrelatte where it will be transformed further into a form that can be stored. Low and mid-level wastes are sent to Soulaine, in l’Aube. “In total, 500 nuclear trains, of which only ten per cent consist of imported wastes, circulate in France every year. That’s two or three every day!
Loaded by staff working for EDF or AREVA, the trains are then handled by SNCF staff. The railway workers have to connect rail cars in between them, and verify the condition of the brakes, assure that everything (tarps, doors, hatches) is in proper order, and inspect the hitches. “For a worker who works fast and well, it takes thirty minutes, half of which is spent very close to the train,” says someone familiar with the job. If there is a problem with the brakes, he might spend a lot of time there. “Sometimes he has to get under the car,” says Philippe Guiter, conductor and federal secretary of the union SUD-Rail. “If he can’t solve the problem by himself, an equipment specialist has to come.” If the car is not quickly repairable, it has to be unhitched and isolated. Then it is sent out to be repaired with its radioactive payload still on it.
The cars deemed fit to roll are towed to the destination, for several hours, by a conductor. In case of incident, a conductor has to get out of his cabin and inspect the length of the train in order to find the problem. “There are times when he’ll be in contact with the cars for 15 or 30 minutes, or longer,” says Michel. Railwaymen are not considered nuclear workers. The maximum dose for them is the same as for the general public: 1 millisievert (mSv) per year, above exposures to natural sources and medical treatments. There is no medical record-keeping of their exposures.
Nonetheless, they are exposed, in the course of their duties, to risks of irradiation and contamination. As Bruno Chareyron, engineer in nuclear physics and head of the laboratory for CRIIRAD (commission de recherche et d’information indépendante sur la radioactivité), describes it, “As for irradiation, certain emissions escape the containment structures.” Contamination consists of the deposit of radioactive materials outside the containment. “They leave becquerels on terrain where there aren’t any normally, such as on the rails on rainy days, for example.”

“Sometimes the guys from AREVA tell us, ‘That car there: don’t get too close to it.’”

In 1998, after the revelation of a significant contamination of “castor” cars (or beavers, the French nickname for the cars used for transporting radioactive waste) on the route between France and Germany, CRIIRAD won the right to conduct its own independent measurements.
According to the gamma rays and neutron emissions recorded, an SNCF employee who prepares six convoys per year, staying each time 15 minutes within one meter of the cars, can receive 675 microsieverts (μSv)[2], which is more than half the minimum annual dose authorized. CRIIRAD notes, “We are way above the dose considered negligible by European regulations, which is 10 μSv per year.” The values measured show that “the doses received annually by certain employees of the SNCF can surpass the maximum tolerable risk limit of 1000 μSv per year." And yet while these figures have been not well known until now,  CRIIRAD has discovered how little awareness of radioprotection there is among rail workers. In a station in Valognes, Normandy, in the winter, some workers huddle close to the beavers during their breaks for the warmth that they give off! These workers have without a doubt surpassed their 675 μSv per year. “It’s clear that no one was paying attention,” comments one staff manager. “I remember during certain operations they stopped to take photos in front of the beavers. Sometimes, the guys from AREVA told us, ‘That car there: don’t get too close, or work fast.’ Then they straightened up. But at the same time, they always told us that there was nothing to worry about, that it was made to be…”

Polemic on radiation risks

At the SNCF it is document RH0838 that addresses “risk of ionizing radiation.” The plans for preventing risks apply to “railway facilities involved in the transport of radioactive materials,” those which are found close to Tricastin or La Hague. In order to identify the risks which workers are exposed to, the SNCF asks the IRSN (Institut de radioprotection et sûreté nucléaire) to come up with protection measures appropriate for each type of convoy and job duty. These measures put in effect between 1998 and 2004 show a regard for the regulatory limits. One document states, “We verify that the maximum dose received over twelve months does not exceed 1 mSv per year, which was always the case until now.”
Measures realized on November 18, 2011 by a certified independent laboratory—The Association for the Control of Radioactivity in the West (ACRO)—on one convoy leaving for Germany confirmed that the doses were below the limit of 1mSv per year. But while the IRSN concludes that there is not a problem, ACRO thinks otherwise. “This limit of 1 mSv is one that aims to cover all the sources that a person is exposed to,” says Pierre Barbey, vice president of the laboratory. “When it’s a matter of exposure to one source, as in the case of the nuclear convoys, the CIPR (Commission international de protection radiologique, ICRP in the English acronym) recommends holding the limit down to 0.3 mSv per year. A railway worker who spends ten hours per year within two meters of these cars will exceed this limit.”
Asked about this question, the IRSN responded, “The railway workers have very little risk of exposure to other sources of ionizing radiation.” But according to Pierre Barbey, “Radioprotection is not merely a consideration of the regulatory limit. It is also, above all, the principle of optimization that obliges one to stay as much below the limits as is possible. The CIPR is very clear on this point.

Intermittent use of dosimeters

In the scope of SNCF’s prevention measures, certain staff are given dosimeters. How many are there? No one seems to know. Not at the SNCF (no response to this question), nor at the committees for health, safety and working conditions (CHSCT), charged with verifying enforcement of rules made to protect the health of workers. Reports on individuals’ dosimeters “are sent three times a year to the doctors in charge of following them,” according to the directory of communications for freight. But Philippe Guiter claims the reality is a bit different. “There are not enough doctors available to examine the dosimeters. And because they have different medical backgrounds, they can’t even make sense of them. They have to be trained in this area. The result? Some workers don’t even use them. They don’t see the point.”
The few railway workers who are often in proximity to radiation would prefer to have counters that show the dose rate, the type which shows the exposure in real time as opposed to the cumulative dose. This would alert them when rates are very high. “We think all the staff should have them, including conductors,” adds Philippe Guiter. According to the SNCF, the latter are not exposed due to “the fact of their distance from dangerous materials and their position in the train engine.” However, “the engine isn’t a confined space, and this worries certain staff. And certainly the conductors sometimes have to come down from the engine. In the autumn of 2010, one who was taking a train loaded with recycled fuel from La Hague to Germany had to walk the length of the train several times. He noticed that the police officers who accompanied the shipment all had dosimeters.” The length of time that workers are exposed can increase when there are problems. In February 1997, a load of irradiated fuel derailed in Apach station, at the French-German border. It took several hours to get the cars back on track.

AREVA assures that there is no danger

At the CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labor) and at the CGT (General Confederation of Labor), there is confidence in the measures and statements of the SNCF. Eric Chollet, national secretary of the CFDT stresses, “It is hoped that management would be as careful with other health issues as they are with nuclear risks.” In the workplace, opinions are divided. “Management assures us there is nothing to worry about,” says Laurent, a conductor, “But with nuclear, it’s complicated. They always tell us there is no problem until there is a problem,” adds one of his colleagues. And in the stations where there is nothing but nuclear cargoes, one fears seeing the job roll on to someplace else if it has been a particularly “hot” object to deal with.
Everyone says he is “very attentive” and no one would be opposed to having extra measures in place. “If the tests of the SNCF could be confirmed by independent labs, that would be welcome,” concedes Gregory Laloyer, representative for the CGT at Rouen. SUD-Rail (a workers’ union), is very active on this matter and has requested additional tests on several occasions. “We are systematically refused,” regrets one union member. “The evaluation of the risk of contamination is left up to the sender,” argues the SNCF in a letter explaining its refusal. “It’s AREVA or EDF that assures there is no problem, upon departure and arrival. Isn’t that great? says Philippe Guiter sarcastically.
A certificate showing the absence of contamination in the rail cars, delivered by AREVA, is based on standards of the IRSN, which uses 1 mSv/year as a standard limit. But on AREVA sites, the rule is that containments “conform to international limits: 2 milliSieverts per hour (mSv/h) where the container contacts the vehicle, 0.1 mSv/h two meters from the vehicle.” Neither ACRO nor CRIIRAD has ever measured such high levels of radiation, ones at which a person would hit the maximum level within 30 minutes, in the immediate vicinity of the rail cars. “But this international regulation for transports is not in line with the public health guidelines in France,” protests Bruno Chareyron, from CRIIRAD. “In 1998 we asked for this to be reviewed, but we’ve never got a satisfactory reply.” (Basta Magazine contacted  AREVA and the SNCF but never received a response.)

Questions about the structural integrity of the rail cars

The SNCF has been called upon many times by various inspectors to review the way it evaluates the risks posed to workers by nuclear convoys. In March 2011, a labor inspector from the region of Ile-de-France ordered the company to “proceed with a new risk evaluation and to anticipate operational modes for responding to emergencies with this type of cargo.”
Formulated in 2011, these orders haven’t yet produced any effect. SUD-Rail wants stress tests for the beavers to be carried out. “They tell us that they can resist a fire of 800°C for half an hour. But Philippe Guiter responds, “In the Mont-Blanc tunnel fire in 1999, the temperature reached 1000°C, for several hours. And a nuclear convoy goes through an average of ten tunnels. As for crash strength, the beavers can supposedly withstand a fall of nine meters, but I’d like to see that tested.”
WISE (World Information Service on Energy) published a study in 2003 that raised questions about the shock resistance of the beavers. “In case of a collision involving a train transporting nuclear materials with a train transporting dangerous materials, the combined speed in the collision could exceed the resistance claimed for the beavers in the nine-meter drop test.”

Towards a privatization of nuclear transports?

“We don’t wish to get rid of these convoys,” says a conductor for the SNCF. “But we want good working conditions, without putting our health in danger.” All the rail workers’ unions state that dangerous materials, which include nuclear materials, should continue to be carried by rail “by the least dangerous means.” They stress also that this mission should be filled by a public service enterprise in which the time can be taken to guarantee safety. “And that there is the capability to take actions to protect workers,” adds Gregory Laloyer of the CGT.
The presence of private companies on the French rails concerns them a great deal. “The other day, I saw one worker, a guy working for a private contractor, arrive at the station. He hadn’t had time to check the brakes, and he didn’t even know what he was hauling. What will happen in the future if such people drive nuclear convoys which are for now still taken by the SNCF?”
“The transparency that we demand, for us and our colleagues, is also for passengers,” says Laurent, a conductor. “We believe that it is not acceptable that convoys carrying nuclear materials should be in transit on public routes during peak hours, especially in the Paris region,” adds Philippe Guiter. “We want the SNCF to remain as a top rank transport company which imposes no risk of being irradiated on workers or travelers.

Photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/greenpeace_nederland/5808817994/sizes/m/in/photostream/ 


[1] Certain names were changed at the request of persons interviewed.

[2] At a distance of one meter, the gamma dose rate is 31 μSv/hour. The neutron rate is 14 μSv/hour. A worker who handles six convoys in ten months, spending 15 minutes each time less than a meter from the cars, receives a dose of 675 μSv, or 0.675 mSv.
translation of:
Nolwenn Weiler


Fukushima Daiichi and Other Horror Stories

I’ve been living in the Tokyo area since the time of the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe (2011/03), and for the most part it has been good to see the international concern and increased support for the anti-nuclear movement. Yet some of the reactions haven’t been helpful at all. There has been a lot of alarmism and hyperbole over the tragedy arising from a failure to see it in the historical context of similar industrial accidents and atrocities.
   There have been many disasters which have had devastating impacts on vulnerable populations, yet most of them have received less international recognition and sympathy than Fukushima. Much of the outrage over Fukushima has implied, unintentionally perhaps, an outrage that it happened to people in an advanced nation, or that it threatens the west coast of North America with what some believe to be an apocalyptic wave of radiation. There has never been this much concern for the fallout that affected the inhabitants of the Bikini Islands, Christmas Island, Fangataufa, Lop Nor, or “The Polygon” in Kazakhstan—some of the sites where the US, the UK, France, China and the USSR tested nuclear weapons. One could add to the list dozens of eco-disaster zones where forgotten people have had to live with the imposed risks of chemical pollution.
   Many decry the fact that there hasn’t been a wider forced and well-compensated evacuation of Fukushima, but this would come as no surprise to the inhabitants of the places mentioned above. The Evacuate-Fukushima-Now battle cry hasn’t been thought out too well because it fails to recognize the moral questions that arise when non-victims speak for the victims—thinking that it is their job to rescue people who have decided to stay and haven’t asked for help.
   There has been criticism of anti-nuclear groups that says they have abandoned the victims, but at this point, almost four years after the meltdowns, it is hard to imagine what outside groups could do to force the national government to launch a wide-scale evacuation, or offer compensated voluntary evacuation. I can’t fault Japanese anti-nuclear groups for having abandoned this cause and chosen instead to focus on preventing future catastrophes.
   In order to put Fukushima in a global and historical context of ecological disasters, the rest of this article will discuss the humanitarian and environmental catastrophes in Kazakhstan and the Southern Urals of Russia. These Central Asian catastrophes have never received the level of attention given to the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns, even though the environmental, health and social impacts have been far worse.
   The region forms a triangle, with a point at the north in Russia’s plutonium factories near the city of Chelyabinsk, a point in the southwest by the Aral Sea, and another in the east by the Soviet nuclear test site at “the polygon,” near the town of Semey. For comparison, one could make a triangle of similar dimensions and proportions in America, with the nuclear sites of Hanford, Washington, Rocky Flats, Colorado and the Nevada Test Site as the points of the triangle. Each side of both triangles would be about 1,000 kilometers (660 miles) long.
   Both of these fateful triangles could be described as places afflicted by the same suite of devastating ecological assaults. Both have been dammed (damned), mined, soaked with agrochemicals, and contaminated with nuclear fallout.[1] However, the triangle in Central Asia outdoes its American counterpart by all standards of comparison.


   The environmental damage was so much worse in the USSR because of its circumstances at the end of WWII. Millions of people had died in the war, the nation was materially devastated from two decades of Stalinist purges and war, and the thanks it got for holding off the Germans on the eastern front was being dumped as an American ally, losing the aid that had come through the lend-lease program, and feeling threatened with nuclear annihilation. This situation put the Soviets in panic mode as they rushed to rebuild the nation and construct an atomic arsenal that would deter their former ally. The Americans also scrimped on safety as they built their first bombs, but the Soviets took recklessness to new levels. They rushed to build a plutonium factory in a remote region of the Southern Urals near the city of Chelyabinsk, using soldiers and prisoners for the first few years before they could build a proper atomic city housing an elite corps of privileged scientists and engineers.[2]
   An explosion at the Maiak factory in 1957 released 2 million curies over an area that was 6 by 48 kilometers in area.[3] By this time, the routine operations of the plant had also dumped 3.2 million curies in the Techa River before authorities took action. Massive evacuation programs were carried out, but not before damage had been done to the agricultural communities downwind and along the Techa. Victims are still fighting for recognition of the link between radiation and their illnesses, stillbirths, birth defects, and trans-generational genetic damage. The environmental devastation remained secret to wider Soviet society until the late 1980s. One reason for the large and rapid response after Chernobyl was that these earlier disasters had given the Soviet bureaucracy its know-how in nuclear disaster response.
   There is further contamination in this area 500 kilometers southwest of Maiak at the Totsk nuclear test site.

 from The Defense Industries of the Newly Independent States of Eurasia. 1993 http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/commonwealth/dfnsindust-kazakhstan.jpg
When the first bombs were ready, the Soviets began to test them 1,200 kilometers to the southeast in eastern Kazakhstan. The Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty sums up the story:

Between 1949 and 1989, 456 atomic and thermonuclear devices were exploded at the Semipalatinsk Test Site (STS)... on the surface and in the atmosphere… The approximate cumulative explosive yield of the tests conducted before 1963… was 6.4 Mt. This was about six times greater than the explosive yield of the above ground tests at the Nevada Test Site and about six percent of the yield of the tests conducted in the Marshall Islands.
A number of genetic defects and illnesses in the region, ranging from cancers to impotency to birth defects and other deformities, have been attributed to nuclear testing. There is even a museum of mutations at the regional medical institute in Semey… It consists of a room filled with jars containing monstrosities caused by nuclear testing...
As well as an epidemic of babies born with severe neurological and major bone deformations, some without limbs, there have also been many cases of leukemia and other blood disorders, according to James Lerager’s 1992 article Second Sunset--Victims of Soviet Nuclear Testing. Lerager goes on to say: “The director of the Oncology Hospital in Semipalatinsk estimates that at least 60,000 people in the region have died from radiation-induced cancers; “officially,” the area has the lowest cancer rate in Kazakhstan. [4][5]

“There was also this doctor, Toleukhan Nurmagambetov, who thought that the only way you could sort out the birth defects common among this cohort of people—now 200,000 to 300,000 strong—with damaged genes from their parents who had been irradiated, is to genetically control who can have a child.”

-Anthony Butts, director of “After the Apocalypse” (2010), 

a film about the modern-day victims of the weapons tests at The Polygon [6]
The passage above indicates two important points: inhabitants of the continental US were spared the large fallout from thermonuclear (hydrogen) bombs, although what did fall on them had health impacts nonetheless. The American tests of thermonuclear weapons in the Pacific involved significantly more fallout compared to the Soviet thermonuclear tests in Kazakhstan. Whereas there was some relative benefit to having the fallout come down in the ocean in the American tests (a fact which is of no comfort to Marshall Islanders), it was all the more appalling that the Soviets conducted thermonuclear tests on land, in the more heavily populated area of Central Asia.
At the time, weapons testing regimes insisted that thermonuclear devices were clean and fallout-free because they involved fusion rather than fission and were detonated in the air. However, thermonuclear bombs were triggered by fission devices, and they were encased in tons of natural (unenriched) uranium which were vaporized in the blasts, and this was a well understood risk at the time.
To this day, the inventory of hydrogen bomb fallout is still a well-kept secret. Internet searches reveal some studies that have been done on Marshall Island soils and Marshall Islanders’ urine to determine what was absorbed at a distance, but the details on what was produced by each explosion are not available. A report in Health Physics[7] listed 24 selected fission products found in the soils of the Marshall Islands, but such studies have been criticized for deliberate omission of the most important by-products of weapons tests.
A recent article by Chris Busby explains:

… fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing contains enormous amounts of uranium. This should be no surprise as nuclear bombs contain a lot of uranium, and most of it remains unfissioned after a nuclear explosion. But what will come as news to a great many people is the importance in the fallout of an isotope of uranium that few of us have even heard of: uranium-234, a highly radioactive alpha emitter which concentrates in the ‘enriched uranium’ (EU) used in nuclear bombs. All uranium binds to DNA and causes cancer and genetic effects in the children of those exposed—but U-234 is especially hazardous… The UK and USA military have consistently failed to take account of the exposures to these uranium components of the bombs in all the official reports published by their experts.[8]

The Aral Sea

The Aral Sea is not recognized as a region contaminated with nuclear fallout, but it might be the world’s most notorious environmental catastrophe. The mass media and school textbooks have given it good coverage, defining it as a disastrous consequence of state planning during the Soviet era. A massive irrigation system was built in the 1960s to turn the region into a giant cotton plantation and grain producer, but the famous consequence was the reduction of the Aral Sea to a quarter of its original size. The high rates of cancer, disease, birth defects, stillbirths and trans-generational genetic damage are blamed on the heavy use of agrochemicals that drained into the sea and concentrated as the sea dried up. As the water receded, the toxins dispersed in the wind and entered the bodies of nearby inhabitants. This is the standard view that can be found in numerous reports on this environmental disaster, but the proximity of the nuclear test site made me wonder if there was more to it. The polygon test site is 1,000 kilometers away—which is far, but not so far when one is considering the fallout from 456 atomic and thermonuclear devices. In addition, it's not apparent that scientific studies ever looked into what hundreds of underground nuclear tests did to the region's hydrology, or whether climate change, unrelated to the irrigation, had anything to do with the changing flows.
Internet searches turn up very little information that links radioactive contamination to the Aral Sea, but there are studies on this question that seem to have been overlooked in the mainstream narrative of what happened to these once-magnificent inland waters. The Navruz Project was a thorough survey of the entire watershed of the Amudarya and Syrdarya, the main tributaries of the Aral Sea that flow through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The project was funded by these nations, as well as by Sandia Laboratories (US Department of Energy). One report on the Navruz Project stated:

Data collected as part of the first two phases of the Navruz Project (2000-2006) show significant radioactive contamination levels at localized points in the region, due primarily to the Soviet-era legacy of uranium mining and waste processing. These contaminants represent a significant threat to public health and regional security, since natural events (such as heavy rainfall and flooding) or terrorist activities could result in the accidental or intentional movement of radioactive materials into public water supply systems. Interestingly, results from across the basin do not indicate widespread, serious contamination problems as many researchers expected.[9]

It appears that data on the Navruz Project were massaged and twisted in various ways as they were polished for this report published by NATO. Researchers within the nuclear industrial complex must have wanted to take the focus off of nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors, regardless of the country involved. The hazard is instead vaguely and innocuously referred to as mining and processing-related. The uranium in the watershed is assumed to have come from mining and not from bomb detonations. The words “movement of radioactive materials” allude to what would be a devastating break of radioactive mine tailings ponds, but the word choices completely gloss over this hazard. If the authors gave any thought to the effects of Soviet weapons testing, they may have decided to just consider it as a form of “waste processing.”
It may seem odd that Western nuclear scientists would downplay the mistakes of their historical nuclear rival. However, this rivalry should be understood as being actually quite flexible. When the nuclear industrial complex is itself under threat, it reacts like a professional sports league does when the reputation of the sport comes into question during a scandal. The rival teams come together in common cause. Preserving the nuclear status quo in the world is largely driven by the need to preserve jobs, investments and profits as much as by the need to preserve the status quo in global security. This fact was laid bare in the aftermath of Chernobyl when Western and Soviet specialists convened to publish a report under the auspices of the IAEA. One might have expected the Soviets to deny and minimize the severity of the disaster, but it was the Western delegates who insisted that the Soviets reduce their predictions of Chernobyl-induced fatalities from 40,000 to 4,000. This collaboration among rivals makes it clear that the real enemy feared by the industry is domestic opposition.[10]
The following quote from another report on the Navruz Project shows, interestingly, what was omitted and de-emphasized as the findings were shaped into their final form for the NATO publication cited above. The non-standard use of English in the report (the occasional dropped articles and so on) is quite telling, as it reveals the voice of local experts. It shows what scientists in Central Asia wanted to include, in the previously mentioned report, before it went to editors working for NATO:

It was found that the Syrdarya and Amudarya Rivers carry away more than 1000 Ci per year of radioactivity into the Aral Sea. Territories more contaminated with radionuclides and heavy metals have been revealed. [11] 

How dangerous is a Curie?

1 Curie (Ci) = 37,000,000,000 Becquerels (Bq), 1 Bq = 1 atomic disintegration per second.
After the Chernobyl disaster 29,400 square kilometers of the USSR were contaminated at levels above 185,000 Bq/square meter, from only cesium 137.[12] As a crude comparison then, 1,000 Ci is enough to contaminate 200,000,000 square meters (or 200 square kilometers) at this level of 185,000 Bq/square meter, if it were spread evenly (37,000,000,000,000 /185,000 = 200,000,000). 1 square kilometer = 1,000,000 square meters (a square 1,000 by 1,000 meters).

Aral Sea in 1960: 68,000 square kilometers (= 68,000,000,000 square meters), 2004: 17,160 square kilometers.
Assuming the flow of 1,000 Ci per year lasted for 40 years, this would total 1,480,000,000,000,000 Bq distributed over 68,000,000,000 square meters = 21,764 Bq/square meter (1,480,000/68), but the concentration must have increased as the sea shrank. Since so much of the natural flow was being diverted for irrigation, there must have been equal or greater amounts of radiation deposited on agricultural land.

The flow of 1,000 Ci per year into the Aral Sea doesn’t create Chernobyl-level contamination, but it is getting way beyond natural background levels. It could be a significant inhalation hazard in the environment, depending on how it settled in the drying seabed then blew off in the wind. There would be synergistic harmful effects on health when radiation and chemical contamination co-exist.

For comparison with 1000 Ci per year: the Maiak disaster and the Techa River contamination dumped a total of 5.2 million Ci into the environment.

These very different perspectives on the Navruz Project illustrate how this large-scale international research project could massage the reality to make it more palatable. The data doesn’t lie, but institutions can distort, deflect, omit and use euphemisms to make the data portray the desired picture.
The revelation that the Aral Sea is contaminated with radiation may be old news, and its contribution to health damage in the area might be unknowable, but what is startling is the way radiation always gets ignored and chemical pollution is the preferred culprit when health damage becomes evident. The global community has a remarkable amnesia about nuclear history. When it is considered in the research on the Aral Sea watershed, it is mentioned only in veiled language. The problem is acknowledged as careless mining and processing practices. Furthermore, the reports suggest that this situation resulted from mistakes of the past when in fact Kazakhstan, in spite of its principled rejection of nuclear weapons, continues to be a major player in global uranium production. The spin attempts to gloss over the serious environmental hazards of uranium mining, and it obscures the connection between mining uranium and the morality of possessing of nuclear and depleted uranium weapons, and enabling the nuclear power industry. 
When the Aral Sea is considered in this new light, the absurdity and evil of nuclear weapons development are clearly revealed. Here we see one disastrous mega-project that was ruined by itself and another. A well-intended plan to expand agricultural production was doomed in itself by its ambition and reliance on agrochemicals, but, as if it were following a plan with built-in redundancy to assure failure, the chemical pollution got a boost from the state’s nuclear weapons project. Finally, as if this weren’t enough, the Soviets put their bioweapons lab on what was formerly an island in the Aral Sea.[13]
I keep these ecological tragedies in mind when I see people in social media telling me that Tokyo isn’t fit for human habitation. To tell the truth, I was aware of the city’s dioxin levels and acid rain a long time ago, so that was sort of how I felt about it before 2011, but I was living there anyway. Perhaps Fukushima City really should be abandoned, but the nuclear disaster taught us all the valuable lesson that the evacuation of urban areas is impossible. No nation has the space and economic resources to relocate large urban populations. This is one of the better arguments for shutting down nuclear reactors. But the record shows that people carry on living in contaminated cities. People didn’t flee Los Angeles when details of the 1959 Rocketdyne meltdown became known twenty years later.[14] Life went on as the mysterious rise in cancer rates came amid all the other confounding factors in the city’s famous smog.
So my predictions for the doomsayers is sorry, unfortunately, Tokyo will still hold the 2020 Olympics, and the athletes won’t be fainting in the streets with radiation sickness. The Olympics are unstoppable, and evacuation of Fukushima is a pipe dream, but there is a good chance that public resistance can keep most or all of the nuclear reactors from restarting.


[1]Howard G. Wilshire, Jane E. Nielson and Richard W. Hazlett, The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery (Oxford University Press, 2008).

[2] Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford University Press, 2012).

[3] Brown, p. 239.

[4] James Lerager, “Second Sunset,” Sierra, Mar/Apr 1992, Vol. 77 Issue 2, p. 60.

[5] The Soviet Union’s Nuclear Testing Program, Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBTO). http://www.ctbto.org/nuclear-testing/the-effects-of-nuclear-testing/the-soviet-unionsnuclear-testing-programme/

[6] Tiffany O'Callaghan, “The Human Cost of Soviet Nuclear Tests,” New Scientist, May 11, 2011. http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2011/05/the-aftermath-of-nuclear-war.html

[7] Harold L. Beck, André Bouville, Brian E. Moroz, and Steven L. Simon, “Fallout Deposition in the Marshall Islands from Bikini and Enewetak Nuclear Weapons Tests,” Health Physics, August 2010, 99(2) pages 124–142. http://europepmc.org/articles/PMC2904645/

[8] Chris Busby, “The ‘Forgotten’ Uranium Isotope—Secrets of the Nuclear Bomb Tests Revealed,” The Ecologist, November 4, 2014. http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2619320/the_forgotten_uranium_isotope_secrets_of_the_nuclear_bomb_tests_revealed.html

[9] H.D. Passell et al., “The Navruz Project.” In Brit Salbu and Lindis Skipperud (editors), Nuclear Risks in Central Asia, 2008, p. 190-199.

[10] Thomas Johnson (director), The Battle of Chernobyl, Play Films, 2006. 01:18:30~01:21:30.

[11] D.S Barber et al. “Radiological Situation of River Basins of Central Asia Syrdarya and Amudarya According to the Results of the Project ‘Navruz,’” In N. Birsen, Kairat K. Kadyrzhanov (editors), Environmental Protection Against Radioactive Pollution, 2003, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, p. 39. http://books.google.co.jp/books?id=XBZZSmxJca0C&pg=PA39&lpg=PA39&dq=aral+sea+radioactivity&source=bl&ots=uzTiBVHjMC&sig=4Cu75Mxx1evBgrDygi3yOKv4OG8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=RXlYVOSIKYbp8gXR44DIBQ&ved=0CEQQ6AEwCjgK#v=onepage&q=aral%20sea%20radioactivity&f=false

[12] Environmental Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident and their Remediation: Twenty Years of Experience, Report of the Chernobyl Forum Expert Group ‘Environment.’ Table 3.1.5. Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). 2006. pp. 23–25.

[13] Christopher Pala, “Anthrax Island,” The New York Times, January 12, 2003. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/12/magazine/anthrax-island.html?src=pm&pagewanted=2&pagewanted=all

[14] Joan Trossman Bien and Michael Collins, “50 Years After America’s Worst Nuclear Meltdown,” Pacific Standard, August 24, 2009. http://www.psmag.com/navigation/nature-and-technology/50-years-after-nuclear-meltdown-3510/


A Glimmer of Hope for French Nuclear Veterans

The French weekly newspaper Le Canard enchaîné provides aggressive and biting coverage of the nuclear establishment in a way that mainstream media refrain from doing. Le Canard has been in print since 1915, except for a period during the German occupation when it was forced to close. The journal had a moment of international fame in September 2013 when it ran satirical cartoons about Tokyo being awarded the 2020 Olympics in spite of Japan’s troubles containing its nuclear catastrophe.
Unfortunately for readers who would like easy access to its reporting, Le Canard has stuck to its policy of being print only. There is a Le Canard enchaîné website, but it exists only to introduce the journal, sell subscriptions and occupy the domain name that imitators and detractors would like to possess.
Occasionally, I notice people in my social network share photos of pages from Le Canard, and today I came across the following report about the plight of French veterans of nuclear testing. I’m posting this translation of content from Le Canard, hoping that they won’t mind the publicity and the fact that this sample is made available to English readers as an act of solidarity with Les oubliés du nucléaire (the forgotten nuclear veterans).

A less than glowing report for French nuclear veterans
translated from French

It’s a small victory for nuclear veterans of atomic testing in Algeria and Polynesia, and for their families! Will their exposure to radiation finally receive [official] recognition? Maybe not, but according to a recent decree, it will now be the Minister of Health, not the Minister of Defense, who will preside over the commission in charge of compensation. Until now, it has been the military that was judge and jury when it came to recognition of exposure to radiation.
And there is quite a job ahead. The last report of the Committee for Compensation for Victims of Nuclear Tests is revealing: of the 911 cases reviewed since its creation in 2010, 16 have resulted in damages paid by the state. Less than 2% of applicants received a positive response. That’s a real victory of sorts [for one side of the dispute].
The reason for this outcome, according to Jean-Luc Sans, president of AVEN (Association des vétérans des essais nucléaires), is that the administration always uses the same formula to establish the causal link between presence at the site of nuclear tests and illnesses that developed thereafter. The calculations made with this formula are so complex that even specialists in nuclear medicine (consulted by the commission) can make no sense of them.
What’s more, this formula takes no account of certain radioactive elements such as cobalt 60, a very toxic radionuclide released in nuclear explosions. “When this formula is applied, the result is always that the risk was negligible,” claims Corinne Bouchoux, ecolo* senator and author of a scathing report on the compensation law.
As a result, administrative tribunals are now studying no fewer than 300 appeals against rejected claims. Because the administration systematically appeals any judgment that goes in favor of veterans, delays are accumulating. In 2015, the Conseil d’Etat is supposed to have settled the cases which were filed in 2010. The irradiated and contaminated victims have been waiting for thirty years, so it’s not like anyone is in a hurry, right?

translated from French:
“Bilan peu rayonnant pour les vétérans du nucléaire,” Le Canard enchaîné, October 29, 2014.

* The term ecolo refers to the Group écologiste du sénat, a coalition within the French senate that promotes progressive environmental policies.


Looking under the hood of France's energy transition

In recent weeks France’s new law on “energy transition” has received a lot of favorable press. This report by a fan of the law had a photo of a mini-skirted blonde on a bicycle, which was indicative of the (lip)gloss that accompanied the press campaign. Some environmental groups, and even many anti-nuclear groups, hailed the apparent French revolution in energy policy. However, for the critics who examined it carefully, there were serious deficiencies in this law, enough to make it appear to be either a lost opportunity or a cynical greenwashing by a government that has no serious intention of launching a true energy transition. They noted the irony of the law being announced while the World Nuclear Energy Expo was being held in Paris. The fact that the nuclear lobby isn't complaining ought to tell us something. The flaws in the law were laid bare in a frank interview published in in Le Monde with the French parliamentarian Jean-Paul Chanteguet. He was actively involved in the creation of the law on energy transition, adopted on October 14, 2014. He explains why, in his view, it was a compromise he had to go along with, but one which is not up to the task of dealing with the problems at hand.

My translation follows…

Le Monde 2014/10/14

Interview with Jean-Paul Chanteguet, member of le Parti Socialiste representing Indre, president since 2012 of the Commission for Sustainable Development in the National Assembly

You voted for the law, but you claim to be very critical of it. Why?

I voted in solidarity with the party, but I’m not a dupe. I supported it because of a loyalty to the parliamentary majority, and because I recognize the importance of the two new objectives: the halving of energy consumption by 2050 and the reduction of nuclear-generated electricity to 50% of the national total by 2025.

But I also have an obligation to the truth. As the 2015 global warming summit in Paris approaches, I’m not satisfied with a law that fails to make France a country which excels in environmental protection and fails to make it a leader in reducing global warming. This law is, in the end, a lost opportunity.

What is in the text of the law that you find fault with?

First of all, the implicit choice of a decarbonization strategy that relies on increasing electricity production. As experts have shown, it won’t allow us to meet the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to one fourth of present levels. The government didn’t want to explain what its vision was for a strategy for achieving targets. It is more surprising and concerning that within the national debate on the energy transition, four possible trajectories were identified, so it would have been possible to create the law around a clear vision, one which was affirmed and responsible. In reality, it is a hidden, undeclared scenario which has been imposed on us: decarbonization of France by relying solely on electricity.

Thus, according to you it is a pro-electricity law?

The law could have been written by EDF [the utility Electricité de France]. It’s not about transition. It’s rather an adaptation of our energy model, organized essentially around electricity, with a very centralized system of production and distribution. About 40% of the articles in the law are devoted to electricity, nuclear capacity is maintained at its actual level of 63.2 gigawatts, and the development of electric vehicles is a priority.

Yet limiting carbon emissions should presuppose a transition in terms of energy efficiency, reduced consumption and promotion of renewables, but not an increased reliance on electricity, especially if it is generated from nuclear.

The share of electricity produced from nuclear will decrease to 50%. Isn’t that a real turning point?

Nothing has been said about shutting down nuclear power plants, whether it’s Fessenheim or others which are, in any case, due for closing simply because of their age and doubts about their safety. We shouldn’t pretend that our plants are immortal, or that they will last until the EPRs [next generation reactors] are ready to replace them! Nonetheless, in the law, the production of nuclear electricity is more or less sanctified, as its level is fixed as a lower limit that can go no lower.

There is a fundamental contradiction. If we want to both reduce total consumption of electricity and the share of electricity produced by nuclear, we have to consider not limiting its share but decreasing its share over time [even below the stated limit of 50%].

This law isn’t the first legislation governing nuclear energy matters. Francois Hollande had wished nonetheless, at the time of the environmental conference of September 2013, that from now on the State would take the lead in setting energy strategy. But now, it is EDF that will decide its strategic plans and it is the administration that will implement them. This impossibility, in France, to question the almighty nuclear sector sets the conditions for everything else. It prevents the State from deciding the strategy, and the State is the only entity that could lead a true energy transition by way of a mobilizing narrative that envisions a different future.

So it is, in your eyes, a resignation, a political failure?

We see a fading of our hope for a return to political leadership in setting energy policy. The low-carbon strategy is to be implemented over many years by decree, without ever being debated or voted on in parliament. Tomorrow, like today, the management of energy policy will be the domain of the big enterprises of the sector and their connections in the administration.

You are speaking here specifically about EDF and its influence…

EDF should be the spearhead of the energy transition. For this it would be necessary to re-establish this enterprise as a supplier of electricity in the public service. It has to be taken off the stock market so that it can be disconnected from the short-term demands of the financial markets. Then it could be focused solely on collective interests, and its new structure, less centralized and less focused on nuclear, would allow all regions to play an authentic role in the energy transition.

In spite of everything, the law encourages regional initiatives, so elected representatives and local actors…

Only a veritable decentralization can bring forth a transition. It’s at the regional level that all the necessary reforms must take place: renovation of infrastructure and durable mobility, deployment of local energy production, smart meters and intelligent networks, new consumption practices of energy produced by citizens, or energy storage. These will permit us to optimize the way we meet our energy needs while putting a priority on renewables. We have to rethink the energy model to achieve a decentralized and interconnected energy grid. Such change, unfortunately, is not inscribed into the new law which gives regions neither the authority or the necessary means.

Speaking of means, what about the 10 billion euros over three years promised by the minister, Ségolène Royal ? Is this sufficient ?

This is the worst deficiency of the project. There can’t be a true transition without adequate funding. Yet none of the proposals is new: not the tax credit for thermal renovation of buildings, not the interest-free eco-loans, not the subsidy for conversion of polluting vehicles, not the subsidized loans for local collectives. Only the funds for the energy transition, 1.5 billion euros, would be new, but it is not yet financed. And if it came at the price of removing state assets from an enterprise like EDF, this would be a headlong assault, a real provocation [to vested interests]. What’s more, the new law clearly lacks the means to deal with energy precariousness [energy security] and the thermal efficiency of buildings.   

For the next year, the credits in the national budget are, in total, only 1.5 billion euros. Even if this amount is supplemented, it won’t be enough to cover the cost of the energy transition, about 20 to 30 billion euros per year. The sums involved are considerable, but if we don’t envision a change of scale, we are doomed to have no transition. We will have to invent new ways to finance the transition that are lasting and responsible.

And what would these be, considering the budgetary constraints?

It’s not a matter of increasing deficits, rather it’s a matter of  organizing the way the State levies taxes, evolving fiscal policy, and appraising correctly the ecological cost of the exploitation of natural resources. There is nothing “punitive” in this paradigm shift, unless we think taxes are punishment rather than a contribution given with consent so that we can have communal well-being in this country.

We would have to first give life to what is missing in the new law: the price signal of carbon. This is essential to induce a change in the behavior of enterprises and households toward more conservation and efficiency. Toward this end, in 2014 our country created the climate-energy contribution (or a carbon tax). It aims to reduce emissions to one fourth of their present levels, and should make one ton of CO2 worth 100 euros by 2030. With these funds, and taxes on gasoline and diesel, we could fully fund the energy transition.

Why not also imagine financial support, backed by state guarantees, like we had for the rescue of the financial sector in 2008? What we did for the banks could also be done for the energy transition.
Translation of  an interview published in Le Monde, October 14, 2014:
(In France, it is impossible to question the almighty nuclear sector)


Rolling Stewardship for a Tortoise?

Imagine, if you will, a tortoise. You are a forty-year-old parent and your ten-year-old daughter brings home a baby tortoise that she wants to keep as a pet. You permit her to keep it, and the creature quickly becomes a most cherished member of the family. After some time goes by, you realize that this is no ordinary turtle. It’s one of the famous Galapagos tortoises that live for 170 years. Suddenly your daughter is very distraught that no one alive in the family now will be around to take care of the tortoise in the last half of her life. Not only is it a little stressful for your daughter to contemplate her own mortality at this young age, but it’s unusual that the whole family has been forced to consider its obligation to care for a living thing into the distant future.
Image by Catriona MacCallum via Wikimedia Commons
In order to put your daughter’s mind at ease, you promise that you are going to make sure that someone will always be there to care for the beloved tortoise. You come up with the concept of rolling stewardship, the ongoing care of a responsibility across generations. Instructions will be written down, grandchildren will be taught, the tortoise will be honored like a sacred creature in family tradition. But still it is not so simple because you realize that when it comes down to it, no one knows what is going to happen. It is impossible to give a 100% guarantee that the tortoise will be protected long after you and your living kin are gone from this earth.
Obviously, I’m using this story as a way to relate the problem of nuclear waste to something mundane that can be grasped as a matter of simple common sense. The tortoise management problem makes it clear that we have no control over what will happen after our death, and that goes without saying how little control we have over our destinies while we are alive. We have no financial incentive to say, “Yes, absolutely, we can guarantee that the tortoise will be cared for. Our tortoise protection culture is infallible.” To say such a thing would be laughable. Yet when a nuclear “safety” bureaucracy utters such inane promises about its ability to control the distant future, the public is expected to accept them as reasonable, and quite often it does.
The problem of the tortoise does not involve a high consequence risk. If she dies an untimely death in her second century, that’s a tragedy for her and the family that loved her, but not for an entire ecosystem. In contrast, when it comes to nuclear waste, we need the 100% guarantee, but it is, of course, impossible. If someone tells you that a plan to bury nuclear waste is safe, just remember this one self-evident truth that can be perceived by anyone with a normally functioning brain: no one knows what is going to happen.
Native American myth called North America Turtle Island
Unfortunately, institutions are like organisms that care only about their own survival. They are programmed to perpetuate their own existence. When simple logic and facts get in the way, they adopt the four-D strategy: divert, deflect, deny and deceive, and that last item on the list includes heavy doses of self-deception as well. This should not be surprising. We should get over being outraged. We should not expect the nuclear industry (which includes its supposed safety regulators) to suddenly understand it has to do the right thing and fold up its operations. We should realize that these organizations are going to do what they do until they are stopped by an opposing force.
If we put aside concerns about accidents and costs, we can see that the unsolvable problem of nuclear waste disposal is enough reason to put an end to nuclear power. Who would continue to use a toilet that doesn’t flush? The public has given its assent to nuclear power and nuclear weapons because it has been told that nuclear waste burial is the solution and it will be achieved soon, always sometime soon. This promise works because it makes intuitive sense that this should be the solution. Throughout human evolution burial has sufficed as a way to deal with unwanted substances. Out of sight was out of mind. The earth could deal with whatever we threw in it because our waste was, until the Industrial Revolution, always organic.
The nuclear industry now seems to be getting nervous that the public is waking up to the fact that the burial solution just doesn’t exist. Projects like the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada have failed partly because of NIMBY political objections, but more importantly because of legitimate technical conclusions that the long-term stability of the waste containers and the geological features of the site could not be guaranteed. When confused, repeat the mantra: no one knows what is going to happen.
But why should you take it from me? Listen to what these highly qualified scientists have to say about the subject:

1. Jean-Pierre Petit, former director of France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique in an interview broadcast on La Voix de la Russie (my translation) speaking about French plans to bury nuclear waste in Bure, France:

… the storage of wastes with long half-lives poses acute problems. In general, there are two sorts of wastes. There are those that can be called “passive,” like asbestos, and those that can be called “active” that evolve chemically, decompose, and eventually produce flammable gas, and heat. Nuclear wastes obviously belong in the second “active” category. They release heat by their  exo-energetic transmutation. So storage sites require powerful ventilation systems that need to be maintained for centuries. Some wastes that are plastic decompose relatively quickly, releasing hydrogen. When the air reaches 4% hydrogen, it becomes explosive.
In the year 2000, they began to store various types of waste, one of which was mercury, underground at a mine in Alsace. In 2002, a fire broke out. They wanted to get everything out, but they realized it could never be recovered… A fire in a mine is more complicated to manage than a fire above ground. It’s like an oven. The heat has no way out. A small fire can quickly result in elevated temperatures at which the containers begin to melt.
In Bure, a fire would be catastrophic. The wastes are vitrified (in a glass-like state), but glass is not really a solid. It’s a very viscous fluid. At ordinary temperatures, it can do the job for thousands of years. It is not soluble. But the weak point of glass is its low resistance to heat. At 600°C, the glass will flow and liberate its contents. Underground, this temperature could be reached very quickly. In the mine there are also support structures made of metal and reinforced concrete.  Concrete melts above 1100°. The clay in Bure is also saturated with water. It couldn’t withstand being heated above 70°. The creators of the CIGEO project have great faith in a material called bentonite with which they hope to seal the caverns. It’s a particular type of clay that can absorb water and dilate, but it has the same problem as clay in terms of heat resistance.
Fire hazards come not only from the concern about hydrogen explosions. The plan at Bure is to deposit some elements treated with bitumen, but bitumen becomes fluid at 60° and flammable at 300°. Any way you look at it, this project is absurd.
The only thing to do now is to leave everything on the surface, even for centuries if necessary, as a way to make them less toxic by transmutation. There is no hurry. But the government and the barons of nuclear are exerting an enormous pressure to begin burial by 2015. They want to hide all signs of the nuisance that has accumulated for half a century and given nuclear energy such a bad image. If the CIGEO project is realized, this will be a precedent for nucelopaths the world over, and they will all follow suit, saying, “après moi, le déluge!”

(A more complete translation of this interview is here).

2. A similarly persuasive argument was made by Chris Busby in his study of Swedish plans for the burial of nuclear waste. The Wikispooks article on Busby’s career summed up the problem this way:

… Busby calculated that the sealed canisters would explode due to helium released by the decay of alpha emitters within the 100,000 year period required by the Swedish environmental court and indeed probably within 1000 years. This matter is still unresolved. He pointed out that the release of the waste would make the Baltic area uninhabitable since it equated to several thousand Chernobyl accidents worth of radioactivity.”

(More on this topic in this video interview and in Busby’s published report on Forsmark).

   The makers of these nuke waste disposal dreams could always say that these criticisms were merely speculation, but then American plans for burial came to a grinding halt in February 2014 when the WIPP facility in New Mexico experienced an explosion that has shut it down indefinitely. At a recent public hearing in Ontario for plans to create an underground suppository there, Canadian regulators were heard to say that the failure at WIPP occurred because there was a “degraded safety culture.” In a report in local media on the hearings, a critic of the proposal said, “WIPP was once said to be ‘state of the art’ and comparable to the OPG DGR [Ontario Power Generation Deep Geologic Repository], but since the incident, OPG has ‘thrown WIPP under the bus.’”
The Canadian nuclear industry’s response was a bizarre defense because the high likelihood of a degraded safety culture over time is precisely the reason people oppose nuclear energy. The Canadian regulators’ hubris is almost more troubling than the actual disaster at WIPP. Assuming they do have such a great safety culture in the present moment, there is no guarantee it will stay this way 20, 100 or 10,000 years into the future. All it would take is a government keen on budget cuts and hostile to unbiased scientific research, but hey, that would never happen, would it? When in doubt, just repeat: no one knows what is going to happen.

Every time we build and operate a nuclear reactor, we do so with the implicit assumption that we shall forever be able to contain the radioactive poisons we create in the reactor. In doing so, we presume that we can predict the future for centuries and millennia to come, that we can isolate and protect nuclear reactors and nuclear waste from every single catastrophe that nature and man can inflict, including earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, asteroids, human error, terrorism and war. History has already shown us that such assumptions are indeed both foolish and futile.

Physicians for Social Responsibility, April, 2011, p. 11.