More on Charlie Hebdo's Environmental and Anti-nuclear Roots

Charlie Hebdo : A Journal Intimately Linked with the Environmental Movement

translation of:
Barnabé Binctin and Lorène Lavocat, “Charlie Hebdo : un journal intimement lié àl’écologie,” Reporterre, January 8, 2015. (see the link for cartoonists' drawings)

Born in 1970 in the fertile soil of the journal Hara Kiri, Charlie Hebdo is not only satirical, irreverent and anarchically libertarian. It was, and continues to be, one of the favored spaces that speaks for the environmental movement. The former director of information for the weekly, François Camé, said it was a view of ecology that was “joyous, utopian and inventive.”
Gébé, Reiser, Fournier, Nicolino... so many laughing figures, with their barbed pens and lacerating pencils, who lent their talents to the ecology movement. So many journalists spent time chez Charlie.

The voice of the nascent environmental movement

Ecology became a topic for Charlie Hebdo to cover in the 1960s thanks to the work of Pierre Fournier (http://www.reporterre.net/Fournier-precurseur-de-l-ecologie). He was a cartoonist and chronicler, but also a militant ecologist from the start. “He arrived with his dreams, against nuclear and for vegetarianism,” remembers Danielle Fournier, his partner. “Everyone teased him, but they listened to him. He was respected.” Cabu said then the Fournier family was a bunch of carrot munchers. Little by little, his ideas found their place in the wide open pages of Charlie Hebdo. Danielle added, “Cavanna and Choron gave him carte blanche. He did whatever he wanted.” The team managed an organic winery, one of the first, and brought cases of pesticide-free Bordeaux from Aquitaine. As the environmental cause emerged painfully in the post 1968 years, Charlie Hebdo positioned itself as the voice of the anti-nuclear struggle, the voice for solar energy and against overconsumption. Pressured by the enthusiasm of Fournier, the whole team, even the less convinced, like Wolinski, began to speak for the environment.
In 1972, the weekly launched the first political environmental journal: La Gueule Ouverte. After the death of Pierre Fournier, in 1973, Isabelle Monin, the partner of Cabu, took over the reins at this monthly.


All is going well at the uranium mine in Arlit... if Areva says so.

Charlie Hebdo then took a very active part in the fight against nuclear, a founding struggle of the environmental movement. “It’s a historical bond, a fraternal link that connects us to Charlie Hebdo,” explains Philippe Brousse, national director of the group Réseau Sortir du Nucléaire. “Thousands of people became aware because of Charlie Hebdo, and before that because of Hara Kiri.” Charlie was one of the essential actors in the mobilization against nuclear.
A significant event came at the beginning of the movement, as told in this anecdote by Danielle Fournier: “For the protest against the nuclear power plant at Bugey in 1971, Charlie Hebdo chartered buses to go from Paris. Three quarters of the protesters were readers of the journal.”
The journal followed the movement for the rest of the 20th century. The director of  Sortir du Nucléaire, formed in 1997, remembers many contributions by Charb, who graciously allowed his drawings to be published in the group’s publications. “They were voluntary contributions. Charb denounced the nuclear menace, the way Charlie Hebdo always denounced all the forms of extremism in human folly.
In 2010, Cabu and other cartoonists from Charlie used their drawings to undertake a protest against the military uses of nuclear technology. As for Fabrice Nicolino, two years ago he produced a special issue of Charlie Hebdo entitled The Nuclear Swindle.
The same year, Charlie Hebdo was one of the first to take on the CIGEO, France’s project for nuclear waste burial in Bure (Meuse region). This time, it was another journalist, Antonio Fischetti, who searched and sleuthed and disturbed the comfortable in the way that the journal always knew how to do so well.
Michel Marie, spokesperson for CEDRA (collective against the burial of radioactive wastes) recalls, “He came and stayed for three days. He was very committed. His wasn’t the first national coverage, but his article had a big impact. And it wasn’t just caricature. It was real in-depth reporting. This is how Charlie Hebdo always knew how to prick the national conscience, especially when it came to nuclear.”

A joyous and comical vision of ecology

Like this, Charlie mixed the bittersweet of the pencil with the impertinence of reflection. Since its founding, Charlie Hebdo defended the environment with satirical blows and withering chronicles. The shift toward this tone was seen in the animated film L’An 01 (Year 01, made in 1973). It sprang from the imagination of Gébé, joyous critic of productivisme and consumer society. The motto was, “We don’t stop everything. We reflect, and it is not sad.”
This approach seduced journalists like François Camé, who was information director of the weekly from 1996 to 1999, when he quit over a conflict with journal editor Philippe Val. He says, “The ecology movement can be seen as lamentably sad and idiotic, but also as joyous and inventive. Charlie Hebdo always carried a vision that was resolutely positive and human.” It had one irreplaceable weapon: being funny. “We have to use humor to deal with and defend our convictions, our ideas, and our commitments,” says François Camé, “If not, we quickly become dangerous, sectarian frauds.”
And still, every week since 2010, Fabrice Nicolino writes an environmental column in the journal. The piece that appeared yesterday [January 7, 2015] was entitled Flooded at Every Floor. He is keeping quiet about the next one. Much awaited for sure.

Originally published in French by Lorène Lavocat et Barnabé Binctin in Reporterre, January 8, 2015.

Four persons mentioned in this article were killed on January 7th, 2015: Cabu, Charb, Tignous, and Wolinski. Fabrice Nicolino was shot in the leg and is recovering.


France's Bure Nuclear Waste Site on Trial

Recently, I posted a translation from France’s other satirical/serious political journal  Le Canard enchaîné (non, je ne suis pas et ce n’est pas Charlie) regarding the inconvenience of a geothermic energy source that was discovered under the planned site of France’s underground nuclear waste storage facility. Several citizens’ groups banded together to sue ANDRA, the government agency building the facility, and they had their hearing on January 5, 2015.
Even if they get a favorable ruling in the case, the court is powerless to order ANDRA to halt construction. The most that can be hoped for is a condemnation and increased public awareness of this serious flaw in the plans of the French state to deal with its nuclear waste problem. In normal times, nuclear issues have a hard time getting onto the radar of public discourse, and this tendency was only increased when the horrific murders happened in Paris on January 7th, pushing all other news to the margins. It is unfortunate that this recourse to the courts is the only way to bring attention to what is really a public policy problem—a political issue concerning a looming environmental catastrophe. One might think that the issue would be taken as seriously as freedom of speech, or the importance of defending values that one holds sacred. Fighting the despoiling of the land is an issue that could unify everyone in a divided nation and a divided world, but instead we argue about religion and the right to insult others.
What follows below is a statement about the hearing prepared by the plaintiffs who brought the case to court.

The French National Radioactive Waste Management Agency (ANDRA) kept lying in court: Summary of the court hearing on January 5th, 2015

Following a lawsuit by six concerned citizen groups (ASODEDRA, BureStop55, Cedra52, Habitants Vigilants de Gondrecourt-le-Château, MIRABEL - Lorraine Nature Environnement, Réseau "Sortir du nucléaire"), on January the 5th, ANDRA was called to the Superior Court of Nanterre [near Paris].
We sued ANDRA for the offense of hiding data on the geothermal resource of the Bure site for more than 15 years. This geothermal energy resource impedes the construction of a nuclear waste disposal site there, as it might lead to drilling through the wastes. Our lawyer demonstrated that ANDRA willingly failed to execute its duty to honestly inform the public. As a public agency, it is compelled to do so by law. Attorney Etienne Ambroselli said, “We want to stop ANDRA from practicing the art of misinformation. We expect the court to condemn ANDRA for not telling the truth about the difficulties it has encountered in carrying out its mission to manage nuclear wastes over the long term.
The misinformation went on during the legal procedures before the hearing. ANDRA did not produce any new arguments; the weaknesses of these had been emphasized in the citizen groups replications before the hearing. Stuck in this awkward position, ANDRA now has to modify its message with further misinformation. While it had declared there was no geothermal potential, it now recognizes there is. Henceforth, to elude the problem of safety, ANDRA now says it would be possible to tap the geothermal brine near the site, but this would not affect the safety of the site. Henceforth, according to ANDRA's attorney, incidentally drilling through the wastes would release only one hundredth the amount of natural radioactivity! It appears that there is nothing to worry about with these high-level long lived wastes, which raises an interesting question: why bury them if they are so inconsequential? As for the Safety Rules [Règle Fondamentale de Sûreté, RFS III.2.f, then, Guide de Sûreté 2008 of the French legislation] they would be meaningless...
When the memory of the waste dump will have faded, people of the future might wish to take advantage of the earth's thermal energy, and drilling operations might contact the wastes (this is quite possible considering the decline of fossil resources). The future generations will be the victims. It would be irresponsible for our leaders to give the go-ahead to such a project.
Without new arguments, ANDRA's attorney could not justify the malfeasance and unacceptable malfunctions which happened during ANDRA’S drilling in the geothermal investigation. He only pretended that such problems (anomalous obstruction of the tool by mud, inability to conduct sufficiently long hydraulic testing, inappropriate sampling and temperature recording...) would be the "usual" problems encountered in such a task.
The judgment will be given March the 27th at 14h. We hope the court will recognize the obvious strengths of the plea brought forward by our concerned-citizens groups.


A Radiant Future: A Stage Play about France's Nuclear History

Two months before Charlie Hebdo became a famous name, I came across a youtube video of the French actor Nicolas Lambert performing his play Avenir Radieux (A Radiant Future). It was just a short clip, and it seems no other video recording was made of it, but I was intrigued. I ordered the book, read it, then contacted the publisher to ask if I could take it on as a translation project. The translation will be finished soon, so this is some advance publicity for the English edition. I’m not an agent for the publisher, but if someone out there in the publishing world is interested, they can contact me and I will put them in touch with the publisher (Editions L’Echappée, Paris) or the author. Part 1 is a review that appeared in Charlie Hebdo’s special nuclear edition in 2012, written by one of the persons injured in the January 7th shootings. Part 2 is the promotional blurb from the French edition.

Part 1

translated from French
published in The Nuclear Swindle (L'Escroquerie Nucléaire), special edition of Charlie Hebdo, September 2012.
The Seditious Theater of Nicolas Lambert 
by Fabrice Nicolino
Nicolas Lambert invented a new genre that could be called investigative theater. In A Radiant Future: A French Fission he lights up the nuclear lobby while keeping the audience laughing.
Nicolas Lambert was born in Picardie in 1967. In the beginning he was a typical high school student, a lycéen. It was there, still not even an adolescent, that he fell for the theater. As a student of philosophy at university in Nanterre, he continued to do amateur theater and gained experience at the university theater group. He went on to manage that theater from 1990 to 1992. The rest followed a natural course. In 1992, he founded, with the actor and musician Sylvie Gravagna, the Charlie Noé Company. They presented their creations, first Arlequin poli par l’amour, for an audience of young people in Seine-Saint-Denis. Settled in Pantin, the company went on to produce fifteen shows by 2003. And then, out of the blue, the famous Elf trials began.[1]
In 2003, all the scoundrels who had gorged themselves on Elf money were brought to the docket. Lambert attended all the sessions, and wrote a little response to what he witnessed. In 2004, just before creating the company Un pas de côté, he launched his magnificent new production called Elf, the Pump of Africa. Every word in the script had been uttered in the trial. Lambert incarnated, madly and comically, all the corrupt individuals involved in the scandal.
Without realizing it, he had invented a genre—investigative theater.[2] In the same vein, he created a piece on nuclear history, which, after a triumph in all of France, was staged at the Festival d’Avignon. His title: A Radiant Future: A French Fission. Charlie isn’t lying to you when he says it’s very good, and better than that.
The quality of his device hinges first on faultless documentation. Lambert did his homework and got help from some excellent researchers. Apart from the trivial matter of the gloomy Eurodif[3] file (to be discussed elsewhere), the facts and the characters are all there in their exact places. But nothing would work without Lambert’s astonishing incarnations. The characters are many, but he does them all as a one-man show, on the stage and in the aisles, leaping from one spot to another, changing voices, moving from light to shadow.
The piece begins with a public information meeting concerning a proposed nuclear power plant. Hilarity ensues. Lambert is Mr. Loyal, Mr. EDF (Electricité de France) Mr. Elected Official, but also the simple dumb asses who’ve come to puff themselves up. What follows are numerous samples of official discourse, of ministers, presidents (Sarkozy is very well done) and nucleocrats. We must keep in mind that all the words chosen by Nicolas Lambert were actually spoken. This is an element of the play that gives the performance its considerable impact.
The best characterization is without doubt that of Pierre Guillaumat, the man who led the French nuclear program for decades. Lambert surpasses himself, camping the former head of the CEA (Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique) in semi-obscurity, pipe in mouth, answering the questions asked by a German journalist.
I left the theater wondering who I’d like to tear into first. And it’s not over. Lambert is preparing another play about the arms trade.

[1] This trial was the final judgment on what was called “l’Affaire Elf,” a corruption scandal of the Elf Aquitaine oil company that ensnared several high-profile figures in the political and business establishment. It has been called the largest corruption scandal in a Western democracy in the entire post WWII era.
[2] A reader pointed out that the genre isn't actually new. It's also called documentary theater or verbatim theater. Anna Deveare Smith is a primary example. She did a one woman play with many characters from the LA riots called Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.
[3] Eurodif refers to the uranium enrichment plant that was opened in 1973, built in France in partnership with other Western European countries.

Part 2

From the back cover of the book’s French edition:

Nicolas Lambert, Avenir Radieux: Une Fission Française (Editions L’Echappée, 2012)
Nicolas Lambert prepared this play about nuclear for seven years, pouring over heaps of articles and books, visiting nuclear power plants, attending public debates on the EPR reactor proposed for Penly, meeting union leaders, intermediaries, militants, corporate spokespersons for Areva and EDF—and then March 11, 2011: Fukushima.
Then this enormous task that he was conducting alone, in the shadows of a polite indifference, took on a sudden significance. The silence of the media, parliamentary apathy, the disdain for antinuclear activists (seen at best as lovable old cranks), the reassuring refrain that there was no risk of a major accident: all of these perceptions suddenly disintegrated. Barely finished, his play now had an audience that was ready to listen.
Tour de force: In two hours and in 23 characters, all performed by Nicolas Lambert, we are taught how France became the most nuclearized country in the world, beginning in 1945, when de Gaulle created the CEA (Commissariat à l’énergie atomique) in order to make an atomic bomb, until our times when those who wish to get out of nuclear remain inaudible.
Through the choking laughter emanating from irradiated neurons, Lambert makes us see it all: the fable of energy independence, the farce of public debates, the discreet but essential role of great servants of the state like the stunning Pierre Guillaumat, one of the key characters of this saga, the Eurodif Affair, the terror attack in Paris in 1986, the edicts of Messmer and Pompidou, the procrastination of Mendès-France and Mitterand.
The script of the play is supplemented with a long interview with the author, background information, illustrations and a chronology. In short, everything that the nucleocrats don’t want to think about.


Charlie Hebdo Special: The Nuclear Swindle

     As the French nation prepares for a massive rally in support of liberty and free speech in the wake of the January 7th murders, certain ironies cannot escape attention. The entire political establishment will be out for this rally, yet they were all targets in the past of Charlie Hebdo's pointed satire. Some of them voiced disgust and disdain when they were the targets, or they showed no interest in fixing the problems exposed in the journal. Good for them, I suppose, if they are now ready take criticism more seriously and pay free speech and democracy more regard.
Allons enfants de la Patrie/Le vrais terreur est AREVA!/
Contre nous de la tyrannie/ L'éolienne est levée/Entendez-vous dans les campagnes/
Mentir ces nucléocrates?/ Les rayons viennent jusque dans nos bras/
dans nos fils, nos compagnes
    Just in case anyone gets the impression that Charlie Hebdo did only crude satirical cartoons about religion, let's remember that these jokers had the courage to take on all sacred cows, even the ones with Iodine 131 and Strontium 90 in their milk.
     Below is the cover page of Charlie Hebdo's special nuclear issue from 2012. The French original of the cover page and accompanying text is here.
     The full issue does not appear to be available in digital format.

The Nuclear Swindle: 70 Years of French Atomic Radiation
Charlie Hebdo Responds to Montebourg*

Special Edition of Charlie Hebdo, September 2012

Great Folies of the Past
The Anti-Nuclear Movement
The Gifts Were Almost Perfect
The Future of an Illusion

Next September 15, all government-sanctioned ecological issues will be examined at the Environmental Conference. It’s a safe bet that the topic of nuclear energy will not be broached, as it was carefully swept under the carpet at the Environmental Roundtable held by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007. Montebourg and Valls, representatives of a largely pro-nuclear Parti Socialist, set the limits of debate by declaring that “nuclear is an industry of the future.” It has been like this for fifty years whenever the question of nuclear energy is addressed.
In these sixty-four pages, Fabrice Nicolino retraces the history of atomic radiation in France. Light is finally shone on figures unknown by society, such as Pierre Guillaumat, and on discreet institutions such as the Peon Commission. In 1974, Prime Minister Pierre Messmer announced on television a massive plan to construct nuclear power plants. The result: today France has the highest per capita ratio of nuclear power plants in the world, and the nation is directed by the interests of EDF (electricity provider, Electricité de France), AREVA (nuclear power plant construction, uranium mining) and the CGT (labor, Conféderation Générale du Travail). No one lifts a finger against this scam.
Nuclear is a hold-up. A robbery in which democracy is the booty. Charlie Hebdo has been opposed to the all-nuclear policy since the 1970s. In this special issue Fournier, Reiser and Cavanna collaborate with Fabrice Nicolino, journalist and militant ecologist (author of Bidoche, The Meat Industry Menaces the World and Who Killed Ecology?).

*Minister of Industrial Renewal, May 2012-August 2014.


The Inconvenience of a Geothermic Energy Source Under France's Nuke Waste Dump

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 sharing photos of pages from Le Canard (a previous one translated to English is here) and today I came across the following report about a fiasco at France’s nuclear waste disposal site in Bure. 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 throughout the world so that they will be forewarned about how nuclear waste disposal projects always offer a false promise of a final solution for nuclear waste, along with pledges of jobs and economic development for the remote communities that are always exploited for these ventures.

Nuclear Waste on the Aquifer

by Professor Canardeau
translation of Des déchets (nucléaires) sur la nappe
Le Canard enchaîné
December 2014

A huge pocket of warm water exists beneath what is supposed to be France’s largest nuclear garbage pit, located near the town Bure. This site is destined to store, for at least 100,000 years, the most dangerous high-level waste that has accumulated since France built its first reactor. 125 meters tall, 30 kilometers wide and dozens of kilometers long, this reserve of warm water could sooner or later be used to produce heat or energy. The water is a comfortable 66 degrees, but it is found at a depth of 1,800 meters, while the nuclear waste is to be buried above it at a depth of 500 meters.
On January 5, 2015, the agency for the management of radioactive waste (ANDRA) will find itself on trial in high court in Nanterre for having divulged false information concerning the supposed absence of concern about significant underground water tables at the site in Bure. The citizen groups Sortir du nucléaire and Stop Bure 55, and Mirabel Lorraine Nature Environnement have brought the charges.
Some background: The fundamental rules related to deep geological disposal of nuclear waste, established in 1991 and still in force, clearly state that sites should not involve significant concerns about geothermal sources or build-up of heat. But in 2002, the geophysicist André Mourot (now deceased) was going through the archives at the Bureau of Geological and Mining Research in Nancy, Reims, and he discovered the existence of this aquifer, and he realized its significance as a source of energy. The geologist Antoine Godinot remembers that André Mourot wrote a report and distributed it to all interested groups. Next, they demanded that ANDRA conduct testing to learn fully about the aquifer.
ANDRA made no response until 2008. “What a disaster, this drilling and testing,” laughed the nuclear physicist Monique Sené. “The probe got stuck. They couldn’t even reach the aquifer.”
This fiasco didn’t stop ANDRA from declaring in 2009 that the geothermic source is negligible. Since then it has stuck to this position. To the malcontents it accuses of spreading this information about a geothermic potential, it responds, “The studies done by ANDRA concern whether there is an exceptional geothermic resource.” For ANDRA, as far as Bure is concerned, there is “no geothermic resource of exceptional interest.” Everything hinges on what is understood by “exceptional.”
Tada! At the end of 2013, at the request of the local information committee tracking the Bure laboratory (composed of representatives of the State, local collectives, and civil society groups), a Swiss group called Geowatt, specializing in geothermic energy resources, produced a report that stated, “We are of the opinion that the geothermic resources of the Bure region could at present be developed at an economical cost with the use of appropriate technology. The nail in the coffin was the additional comment stating, “The burial of nuclear waste prevents access to the geothermic resource.”
The physicist Bernard Laponche points out, “If we build this project at this site, we are going to impose enormous risks on future generations, and for sure one day people will want to exploit this geothermic energy, but they will stumble upon the nuclear waste that is blocking access to it. ”
Perhaps ANDRA will be able to leave their contact information for future generations to get in touch.

translation of Des déchets (nucléaires) sur la nappe
Le Canard enchaîné
December 2014

More information on this topic at Sortir du Nucléaire (in French only).

Update, January 19, 2015: The plaintiffs' statement about the hearing held on January 5, 2015


Environmental Story of the Year: Sharon Lerner reporting on a Florida Cancer Cluster

For the final edition of this blog in 2014, I looked back through my files for a report to recommend as environmental story of the year. One that has stuck with me since November is a report in The Nation by Sharon Lerner. It is superb not only for the quality and thoroughness of the research but also because the story relates everything that is wrong with countries that have chosen to put energy security and national security above the protection of life.
In this story about the cancer cluster in Acreage, Florida, the tragic irony in the pursuit of security is starkly revealed in the experience of a father who worked as a customs agent. Because his job required him to keep his nation safe from the bad guys who would smuggle in nuclear materials and perhaps dump them in water supplies, he wore a Geiger counter on his belt, and it was this device that detected the high radiation levels in the water around his residence in Acreage. His teenage daughter had survived brain cancer surgery recently, and was still struggling with the after-effects. Several other children living nearby had been similarly afflicted, some of them with fatal outcomes. Their families had been getting some support from local, state and federal government, but still the cause of the mysterious cancer cluster was difficult to pin down. Was it a random coincidence? Chemicals? A unique lifestyle shared by the victims? Radiation? The staccato sound of that Geiger counter in the middle of the night was the sign pointing to the most likely cause—a defense contractor that will always be able to evade responsibility because of the important work it does in protecting the nation from evildoers.

For years, radioactive waste has seeped into swampland, canals—even drinking water in Acreage, Florida. Now a few families are fighting to hold the polluters accountable.

Just because I chose an American story doesn’t mean that this is only an American story. My point is that this is a textbook case of what occurs in contaminated communities everywhere in the world. If anything, this American story might be the most hopeful simply because it is known and reported, and government agencies and the justice system sometimes did at least function to some degree to assist the victims, even though there is likely to be no satisfying outcome.
It would be more compelling perhaps if each story of contaminated communities could be as unique as a new work of avant-garde narrative, but, unfortunately, they are as formulaic as the standard three-act Hollywood romantic comedy. So this is how I’ve summarized the report on Acreage. You can get the general outline here, but it would be better to take the time to read the long version at the link above.

Act 1: First Reactions

The story began with the individual families dealing in isolation with the rare diseases that afflicted their children. At first they accepted what had happened as blameless, rare tragedies, but then they started to hear about other cases nearby and they became suspicious of an environmental cause. There were four children with brain tumors who lived within two miles of each other, and several pets had died as well. Because the town was unincorporated and had no responsibility to supply treated water, the well water which everyone drank was a likely place to look for pollutants.

Act 2: The Conflict

The affected townspeople turned their suspicions into a concerted fight to find out what had sickened their children. In the past, government agencies had obviously failed to act on knowledge that the area had problems that should have closed it off to residential development, but in the present case there were people in government agencies who did what they are supposed to do when citizens come with concerns. The state undertook a cancer cluster investigation, which, like 99% of all such investigations, everyone expected to conclude with a finding that the cancers were random occurrences. This is because random events are never evenly distributed. If you throw confetti in a room, you won’t find that each square meter of the floor has an equal number of confetti. Some will have very few, and others will have a lot. Thus it was a shock to the community when the Center for Disease Control found that the situation in Acreage was indeed statistically significant.
All levels of government got involved and helped the victims find out what pollutants had caused the problem, but they turned out to be less interested in finding entities to blame. They found several contaminants in local wells that were above legal limits and the townspeople got the message. Don’t drink the water. However, after these results were found, a new phase of the struggle was becoming apparent. The government agencies were prepared to close the investigation by publishing understated generalities like “water is safe for families to enjoy outdoor activities in their yards.”
At this point the families realized that the government agencies had little interest in pursuing justice for past suffering, or doing anything that would deter future crimes. The more they spoke up and demanded that polluters be identified and punished, the more the unaffected residents fought back. Most people were not affected by health problems, and they were more concerned about maintaining property values, business investment and jobs.
The families that continued to seek answers were accused of gold digging—cynically using their children’s tragic deaths to get money from big corporations. They were subjected to verbal abuse, physical threats, vandalism, and online bullying.

Act 3: Small victories, big defeats

Some of the affected families persisted in going forward in civil trials, while others declined. There are 13 personal injury suits and two class action lawsuits over damages to property values—declines which co-occurred, unfortunately for the plaintiffs, with the nation-wide crash in property values in 2007-08.
There have been famous precedents in environmental justice cases which involved private lawsuits and legal actions by government agencies. The cases in Woburn, Mass. and Toms River, NJ are two mentioned in the article because they serve as examples where much was spent for little gain. They actually serve as deterrents now for lawyers working on contingency and government agencies that might consider going after environmental crimes. Furthermore, some corporations, just like some individuals, are easier to target than others. In the late 1990s, several American states were ready to make the tobacco industry pay hundreds of billions for health care costs, but when the defendants are defense contractors working on secret projects for the government itself, government agencies aren’t likely to be interesting in prosecution.
Meanwhile, much was done to deflect attention to other possible causes: old dump sites, pesticides and herbicides, or even the smoke from sugar cane fires. Yet the brain cancer cluster in children was a unique kind of cancer cluster that deserved to have special attention, and one question worth pursuing arose from the fact that radiation is a known cause of brain cancer. That was where the custom officer’s Geiger counter entered the story.
One suspect was a limestone mine that was known to have released a lot of radon out of the soil, but the more likely culprit that emerged was Pratt and Whitney, a defense contractor that had been in the area for decades. The company was able to conceal information under the cloak of national security, and the courts had no power to make them hand it over. However, records were found of radionuclide use in Pratt and Whitney facilities—in particular, radionuclides that don’t occur naturally. But Pratt and Whitney said these were Chernobyl fallout.* The company had also released various chemicals into the environment: jet fuel, trichloroethylene, PCBs… And there was a study that showed the death rate by cancer of company workers went from 13 to 122 per 100,000 between 1967 and 1980.
There was a point in the early 1980s when the EPA wanted to declare the Acreage area a Superfund site, but Pratt and Whitney won that battle and government agencies began to forget about the issue. Today, the company sponsors cancer charities and engages in other greenwashing activities, and there has been a revolving door for high-level officials to move between regulatory agencies and corporations. It seems like none of the government agencies ever made the effort to at least have the state zone the worst areas as “nature preserves”—an increasingly common euphemistic label employed in recent years to let polluters save face (and $$) while the public is kept from living on land they don’t know is contaminated. Like the wildlife that has to live there, the humans don’t need to know, apparently.
The legal battles continue, but many opted to take their losses on loved ones, property and careers and just move far away. Many who stayed feel just like residents of Fukushima. They may not claim to have suffered any physical harm from the pollution, but the revelations about their contaminated environment have left them traumatized and fearful about what the future holds in store.

What does this say about us?

The story of Acreage wouldn’t be so worrisome if it were just a one-time tragedy, but it is really just a typical entry in a long list of such cases. Almost very element of this story can be found in any story of contaminated communities. In my short lifetime I’ve been chilled to see the growing indifference to the phrase “national sacrifice zone.” It’s like we just shrug it off and add one more to the list, as if there were an infinite supply of new places to inhabit.
When Hernan Cortes conquered Mexico in 1521, one of the rationalizations for the takeover was that the Aztecs were barbarians who sacrificed innocent children to their heathen gods. At least they had an excuse. They hadn’t developed a rational scientific method to teach them that the sacrifices were unnecessary. Ironically, we have had our scientific method for 500 years, but it has been warped into a faith called scientism which serves the ends of military and corporate expansion. An entrenched priesthood of scientists and economists tells us that children with glioblastoma brain tumors are just a part of our way of life that we must accept. A sacrifice for all the great benefits bestowed upon us.

* A question for those online activists who have found radiation hot spots in Florida that they claim to be Fukushima fallout: Have you ruled out all possible local sources?


A Shock Doctrine for Nuclear Energy: Radiation as Electroshock

It has been almost four years since the rapid, unplanned decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi NPP occurred in March 2011, yet it remains difficult to make people appreciate the scale of the dangers involved in a nuclear reactor core meltdown. It just makes no intuitive sense that a few buildings smaller than a Costco store could be so dangerous to so many life forms near and far from the site of what the media like to call the “accident” at the “crippled” power plant. For most people, Fuku-1 is just a ruined industrial site on a few hectares of land in a rural seaside community. The accident is over, clean it up, scrape the cores into a trash bin and be done with it. That seems to be as much as the public wants to think about it. Again, intuitive knowledge would say that a few tons of melted metal are an unsightly mess, but not something that people in Tokyo need to worry about.
Decay scheme for the isotope Iodine 131. keV=electron volt.
Iodine 131 decays to Xenon 131, releasing 971 keV in the process.
It is very difficult to make people appreciate just how deadly these melted cores are, and of course there are many vested interests that don’t want the public think about it much. It’s been convenient to not make people dwell on the problem.
Nonetheless, the destroyed, not crippled, plant is a long way from being cleaned up. As one headline put it in an understatement this week, the “most difficult work” lies ahead. Indeed. The fact is, no living thing can get close to the melted cores because the radiation levels are high enough to cause instant death. Even the robots get fried when they go in to take a few video clips. The containment structures are ruptured, so there is no way to approach the cores and begin dismantling the ruined reactors. Even if there were a way to do it, the work of drilling and chipping at the melted and solidified fuel would send radioactive dust back into the environment. The safest thing to do may be to just abandon the site and leave it as a lasting testament to our civilization.
But who really has the capacity to think about this? Most people have other things to worry about, or they just won’t take an interest in learning a bit of nuclear physics or contemplating the jam the human race has got itself into. The human brain has not evolved to avoid dangers like radiation, so the subject is beyond the reach of intuitive psychology. Even before there were scientifically literate people, it was natural to expect a thrown object to travel in an arc. But no one expects to get sick and die within hours in the presence of certain rocks. Radiation might as well be in the realm of the uncanny and supernatural. It is voodoo action at a distance, a long-term magic spell that can make a person drop dead one year or ten years into the future. Paradoxically, it connects the rationalism of the scientific era back with the superstitious beliefs of the past.
So it is not easy to convey to the majority of people why they should worry about having nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants in their communities. They seem to be ordinary objects, and radiation is intangible. However, I will take a shot at formulating a simple lesson with a point that I haven’t seen anyone else make.
My explanation hinges on the words electra and volt which are used to talk about nuclear energy at both the macro and micro level. We all like to have electrons at our command, traveling through wires in our homes so we can stay warm or cool, fed and entertained. Everyone has to learn the voltage of the local current. At the macro level, uranium and plutonium fission and produce heat, which produces steam that turns a turbine to make electricity. Curiously, at the micro level, the energy of fission and radioactive decay is also described as electricity, measured as electron volts. Different isotopes have different numbers of electron volts that they emit with each decay, making some of them more dangerous than others.
To understand just how unusual and uncanny nuclear reactor fuel is, it is enough to simply marvel at how much heat one reactor can produce. Just one of the reactors at Fuku 1 produced enough heat to light up and heat up a suburb of Tokyo. All that potential energy inside one of those little boxes smaller than a Costco store! And after the meltdown and unplanned disconnection from the grid, there was no way to turn off the process of heat creation.
When a reactor core melts down and its energy is released into the environment, where does that energy go? Eventually it finds its way into living things, into people, and it continues to produce its electricity there just as it did in the reactor. It is mankind’s caged beast now on the loose and out of control.
Thus we can think of radiation as a slow motion, microscopic, internal electrocution. Radioactive atoms spread through the environment, and their alpha and beta radiation strikes cells, disfigures proteins and damages DNA. The cells and DNA can usually repair themselves, but if they can’t, cells can die and the organism can just carry on weaker that before and aging faster than it would have. Sometimes the cell doesn’t die and it reproduces as a cancerous mutation. There is nothing original in this description. The process is well known, but maybe it is useful and novel to describe the process as death in the slow cooker, a low-grade microscopic electrocution. It is electricity escaped from wires and grids and sent through the environment into your body. The less you get, the better.


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