2015/02/26

After the Apocalypse: The anti-nuclear film that wasn’t


As the fourth anniversary of the earthquake-tsunami-meltdown syndrome approached, I looked back at an example of pro-nuclear spin that appeared in the media in the spring of 2011. Ironically, the pro-nuclear message discussed here is a film about the horrors of atomic weapon blasts in The Polygon, the sacrifice zone in Kazakhstan where the Soviet Union detonated hundreds of nuclear and thermonuclear bombs. I'm timing this article to also commemorate the birth of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk anti-nuclear movement which is marked every year in Kazakhstan on February 28th.

After the Apocalypse [1] is a one-hour documentary that takes place in Semipalatinsk, a town in north-eastern Kazakhstan where the USSR detonated 456 nuclear weapons, many of them large-yield megaton hydrogen bombs. The camera goes to radioactive craters where herders still take their animals to graze. It goes to a museum where the pickled corpses of deformed babies sit in jars. However, the horror show of the past is not the main attraction. The film concentrates on the fierce struggle that still goes on today over the reproductive rights of the Kazakhstan hibakusha. The director, Antony Butts, follows a pregnant woman, Bibigul, whose wide-set eyes suggest chromosome damage. She wants to give birth despite the protestations of Toleukhan Nurmagambetov, a doctor who talks of the deformed, and too often abandoned, babies in the region as “monsters.”
1989. A Kazakh woman takes the microphone in the first anti-nuclear
demonstrations (Not mentioned in After the Apocalypse).
When the film begins, the viewer gets a sense that Dr. Nurmagambetov and his staff have made humane and heroic efforts to care for the severely deformed children abandoned to their care, and so we can somewhat sympathize with the stern and drastic positions they have adopted about the need for genetic passports—legal restrictions on who is allowed to reproduce. The doctor is well aware of the historical precedents in ancient Sparta and Nazi Germany. He knows his position is extreme, but outsiders who would judge him haven’t spent years looking after the doomed and abandoned infants in his infirmary. His belief is that genetic passports are genocide when applied to ethnicities, but sound medical practice when applied to individuals and diseases.
Siding with Dr. Nurmagambetov becomes more difficult as the film follows Bibigul through her pregnancy. She is determined to have her child, and she knows how avoid the clinic until it is too late to have a safe abortion. She also refuses to have amniocentesis to check for Down syndrome while there is still time to terminate the pregnancy. The film ends with the birth of her apparently healthy and un-deformed child.
While most of the film is a narrative of Bibigul’s pregnancy, it also has segments that are straight journalism. The director gives legitimacy to the scientific controversy over whether the birth defects in the region really were caused by atomic bombs. For most medical professionals and inhabitants of the region, denying the effects of the bomb blasts is a cruel joke, but one wouldn’t know this by viewing After the Apocalypse.
Deniers cloud the issue by suggesting that in the pre-atomic era the region was known for a high rate of birth defects caused by vitamin deficiencies in the local diet.
The controversy is presented through interviews with two scientists, Dr. Sergey Lukashenko from the Institute of Radiation Safety and Boris Gusev from the Semipalatinsk Institute of Radiation Medicine. As one might suspect by the name Institute of Radiation Safety, Dr. Lukashenko seems to have his job because his views assured he would fulfill the institutional mission to speak to the public of such a thing as “radiation safety.” In his short interviews he states:

At that time they were studying the after-effects of shockwaves and different types of damage caused by nuclear weapons, but now we only study things to do with radioecology. This place is the cradle of the Soviet Union’s atomic weapons research program. They did everything here. 456 bombs were tested… Kazakhstan is not a nuclear country. We don’t know any nuclear secrets. (9:00~)

His statement that Kazakhstan is “not a nuclear country” is true only if one accepts the political opinion that nuclear weapons and nuclear energy have nothing to do with each other. While renouncing nuclear weapons, Kazakhstan has made a very determined effort to be one of the world’s leading uranium suppliers, yet Dr. Lukashenko’s expertise in radioecology seemed to take no account of the substantial hazards left behind by decades of uranium mining.
Later in the film he performed a classic example of the radiation expert waving the “magic wand” to divert the public’s attention from the actual means by which organisms and ecosystems are affected by radiation. During a tour of the radiation museum he waves a Geiger counter at a piece for granite from ground zero of one of the Soviet bomb detonations. The Geiger counter screams when held close, but drops off to safe levels a few meters away because of the inverse square law. He tells the camera:

If the background level is 15 to 20, then 15 times higher than normal is not a lot. The existence of these objects [radioactive rocks and buildings at the sites of detonation] cannot be the cause of all the horrors that they show on TV—I mean the deformed people and so on. There is no way it can account for it. It cannot be the reason because the radiation is too low. (32:30~)

It is notable that he did not say “it is unlikely to be the reason.” Instead, he speaks with an angry and insistent voice, saying “cannot be the reason” about a point which cannot be determined with certainty. He shows here a faith in a scientific model of the effects of radiation that has been questioned for many years because it has consistently ignored the effects of internal contamination, as well as the chemical, as opposed to radiological, effects of nuclear wastes in the environment.
Dr. Lukashenko’s rant is meant to deflect attention from these concerns, and it does so by stating a point that his opponents would not dispute. When he speaks about gamma radiation falling rapidly at a distance, he's referring to some basic high school science--the inverse square law--that no one disputes. Nuclear opponents also don't dispute that that low, temporary doses of gamma rays present little danger. The issue of main concern is the damage caused at the time of the bomb blasts to the genomes of all creatures in the ecosystem. These were times of intense irradiation and heavy metal chemical  and radioactive fallout. They damaged the cells of people alive at the time, and because some of these cells were reproductive cells, the damage was passed on to future generations. Thus it is totally beside the point to draw attention to the fact that people are in no danger from the radioactive rubble at the old bomb sites. It is a distraction and a deflection of attention from the real concern, made out of a deliberate wish to deceive, or out of incompetence. 
The more authoritative voice in the film was that of the veteran scientist of the Soviet radiation research project, Boris Gusev of the Semipalatinsk Institute of Radiation Medicine. He stated:

We reported directly to Moscow. These are the records of illness. These [records] are from the most seriously affected villages next to the Polygon. We observed and analyzed the population. We investigated which were the main illnesses that were linked to exposure from radiation. We compiled them into risk groups and so on. All this data was top secret. When I was a doctor, a neuropathologist, back then all our life was on the road. We observed the population, we returned for a quick wash and shave, and then we were back out again. On the first floor where the hospital is now we had an enormous laboratory which processed this work. We knew precisely where the radiation was. We knew precisely how much of the different types of radiation people were being exposed to, what dose the population was receiving. That is, we were not idle. We knew everything.
But the most important thing was that willingly or unwillingly the people living in the regions of the Polygon had been pulled into this game between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union played the worst role, of course, because it allowed its citizens to live through the most real type of nuclear war. They were thinking about a preventive nuclear war—that if there was going to be one, then they had to know what would happen to people. And, therefore, no one was evacuated. Instead, they were observed to see how many would die, how many would become ill and so on.

Do you feel a little bit guilty that you took part in the Soviet Union’s experiment?

My good man, how far we are from one another. From a moral, ethical point of view and in knowledge of that time… You ask this question—and are probably correct in doing so—but there is no answer to this question. Simply, there isn’t one. I can’t explain it. And you will never understand what the former Soviet Union was. You will never understand this in your lifetime. (19:00~)
Over the last 15 years we have thoroughly analyzed all the material in the archives. We have made our conclusions and published our research. And at the same time we have continued our planned research on the population. Now a huge group has appeared, of 250,000 to 270,000 people. These are the children of parents who have been irradiated. We thought that everything would go smoothly, that chromosomal damage and genetic effects would be confined to only the generation of people who were irradiated, and they could not be inherited by future generations. But it turned out this was wrong. (46:18~)

The director inserts a text onto the screen after this statement, citing no expert opinion to support the claim, in order to cast doubt on what Dr. Gusev has just stated:

The vast majority of scientists do not believe that radiation damage in humans can be passed down the generations. But in Semipalatinsk many believe that radiation can cause “genetic instability” in later generations.

The same distortion of the “controversy” occurs in other parts of the film. Another text inserted into the film asserts, again with no citation:

There is no reliable evidence that nuclear testing caused the area’s higher than average birth defects. It could not have caused Bibigul’s appearance: her mother has the same facial characteristics and she was born before the [nuclear] testing started. Despite this, many in the medical profession in Semipalatinsk believe that women with “suspect genes” should not have children. (36:50~)

In spite of what is stated above about the age of Bibigul’s mother, Biken, the precise ages of the two women are never stated. Nuclear explosions first occurred in The Polygon in 1949, and Bibigul appears to be about 30 years old at most when the film was made shortly before 2011. If her mother had been born before 1949, she would have been over 30 by the time she gave birth to her daughter. In any case, even if Biken avoided genetic damage in the womb of her mother, Bibigul certainly could have been born from an ovum that was exposed to radiation, one that was in her mother in the 1950s during her childhood. Biken herself recounts (3:15~) how she witnessed the bomb explosions at the age of six and became ill from them. “It was definitely the nuclear effects,” she says, so there is no reason to discount the possibility that her ova (ova exist in the female fetus even before birth) were damaged by radiation.
     Another curious aspect of this issue is that in this film, which is ostensibly about the effects of nuclear weapons, the director focused on an outlier, a person with a serious genetic abnormality who was born before the weapons were detonated. Then he chose to save this information as a big reveal late in the film after the viewer has been led to believe that the abnormality was caused by nuclear bombs. Was Biken a "cherry-picked" research subject in this film? It would have been easier to find younger grandparent-child-grandchild lineages that started in the post-nuclear era (for example, three generations born 25 years apart in 1955, 1980, and 2005).
One of the first anti-nuclear demonstrations in Kazakhstan
in 1989 (Not mentioned in After the Apocalypse).
Antony Butts sometimes uses his subjects to support his view, but contradicts them and bends their stories at his convenience in order to dismiss the conclusion of medical professionals who have long and deep experience with the local situation. Even if the non-effect of radiation on this one family could be proven, it would be only one family. It would prove nothing about genetic damage in all of The Polygon hibakusha (who all have official documents identifying them as victims of nuclear explosions), yet Butts is willing to imply that he has untangled the mystery by filming the story of one pregnancy.  
One would think that a film about The Polygon would be the ultimate anti-nuclear film, yet it seems a nuclear advocate took up the topic as a challenge: What if we could show that even in the worst place imaginable no harm from radiation could be proven? But it failed to find an audience among either the pro or anti-nuclear crowd. This occurred because its conclusions are too pro-nuclear to gain sympathy from anti-nuclear audiences, but its images are too horrific for it to serve the purposes of the pro-nuclear lobby.
In spite of an apparent attempt at objectivity, the pro-nuclear bias becomes more obvious by the end. Dr. Nurmagambetov ended up looking like a heartless fascist, while the birth of Bibigul’s apparently healthy baby was used to imply that all is well in Kazakhstan. Antony Butts might have chosen to keep his own views hidden and let the film speak for itself, but in an interview in New Scientist [2] at the time of the film’s release, he stated some views that were straight out of the nuclear industry’s talking points. He showed that he agreed with Dr. Lukashenko, while he seemed to have not accepted what the veteran Soviet scientist had told him about the confirmed existence of 250,000 people with inherited genetic defects. He told the interviewer:

I was very surprised that the radiation did die off as much as it had. They tested 456 bombs—20,000 times the explosive power of Hiroshima—on this area. You go to the craters and sure, they’re radioactive. But if you’re a kilometer away from them, it’s nothing. It’s background level. When you have a nuclear war it’s actually quite habitable afterwards, so in one sense it’s not as scary as it’s been made out to be. Yet in another, there’s this other kind of fear—of long-term genetic damage.
The radiation is concentrated around the craters, but elsewhere there’s not enough radiation to cause these birth defects. So what is the reason? That’s where we get into controversial science. The epidemiological data that the Institute of Radiation Safety has isn’t perfect, but it suggests that children of the cohort that got irradiated live on average five to seven years less than those from a comparable socioeconomic group in an area that wasn’t irradiated. Is that due to the psychological stress, or, alternatively, could it be because of this obsession the locals have of protecting themselves from radiation with vodka?
There is this elevated level of birth defects; there’s no getting around it. There is a folic acid problem there—the whole area has a lack of greens and folic acid deficiency is linked to birth defects. But the scientists and doctors I spoke with said that folic acid deficiency could not account for so many birth defects, especially now as they’ve begun giving out supplements to little effect. This is where the science gets difficult. You can talk to scientists who will say it’s a load of rubbish, or others who will say that it’s been proven that radiation damage can be passed on in mice but that we’ve got to prove it in humans. I think this is crucial to nail down.
Yuri Dubrova, a geneticist at Leicester University, has a freezer full of blood from all of these generations from Semipalatinsk, down the line. It’s just sitting there waiting to be defrosted and analyzed when the time is right—and when the funding is there. I think the time is right now.
I think Semipalatinsk is particularly relevant [after Fukushima] because it explores the harrowing consequences of radiation exposure… All forms of energy creation are going to kill people. Coal kills millions of people per year with particulate pollution. Before we get really scared about radiation we need to understand the science and make an analysis. Do we go nuclear power or not? Instead of the debate being idiotic nonsense of rhetoric and fear, we should honor these people and let their deaths and lives mean something.

What are the main things that you hope people take away from your film?

There are two main points I hope to make. One is about a post nuclear-war world—and why nuclear weapons are bad. The second is how paranoid people are about something they know nothing about. In the absence of knowledge, fear thrives. This is especially important because we must choose a new form of energy, and a lot of us are writing off nuclear power because of fear. We have this golden opportunity to say, well how scary is it? Let’s give grants to these scientists and find out. Then we can choose to be frightened or not.

One wouldn’t expect a filmmaker to return from the Soviet Union’s nuclear test site speaking like a public relations man for the nuclear industry, but these comments have a remarkable similarity to the talking points that repeatedly appeared in editorials written by nuclear advocates in the weeks after Fukushima. The theme of fear is found throughout, along with the Chernobyl tropes about illness and death from fear, stress and vodka. Such talk suggests the main concern should not be eliminating an environmental hazard but rather managing our fear of it. Antony Butts then trots out the canard about deaths from coal, as if there were no other energy alternatives besides nuclear. Somehow he knows that the debate is “idiotic nonsense of rhetoric and fear” and not based on a solid half-century of research by numerous scientists who concluded nuclear was a technology to be avoided (see the reading list below).
The most dubious point is the suggestion that more research is needed, as if we shouldn’t believe what Dr. Gusev stated in the film about sixty years Soviet and Kazakh research leading to the discovery of 250,000 people with inherited genetic damage. Supposedly, we have to wait until the finding can be confirmed by a proper British researcher with a freezer full of blood from people of Semipalatinsk. The additional problem with this faith in British research is that it too would be dismissed by nuclear advocates who would say again, “This is where the science gets complicated. We just don’t know. It has to be nailed down when research funding becomes available.” No amount of unfavorable research findings could ever convince the nuclear lobby to quit its game.
Antony Butts’ ignorance on these matters points to a general pitfall of documentary filmmaking. The filmmaker might be an expert in his craft, but not in the subject of his film. We shouldn’t expect him to speak like an expert on a topic just because he spent a few months making a film about it. However, directors are often given the opportunity to speak as authorities, while the experts who have devoted their careers to the topic go ignored. Most directors attempt to be objective and not tell the audience what they are supposed to conclude about the topic, but the rule to go in with an open mind doesn’t mean that one has to proceed with an empty mind. It’s alright to read some books before turning on the camera (see the reading list below).
These comments that Antony Butts made before the debut of his own film raise serious questions about his pre-existing motives or who was out to influence him before, during and after the film’s production. Did he do any research? Did he learn anything about alpha and beta particles and the mechanisms of internal radioactive contamination. What about bioaccumulation in the ecosystem? These topics were never mentioned in the film. A commenter on the New Scientist website summed it up: “None of his points are relevant and it smells like propaganda from the nuclear industry.”
The director himself, or people who had his attention, may have thought it would be a great challenge to spin the worst nuclear horror story of all in a way that would leave audiences doubting that radiation is really the cause of poor health in the populations around The Polygon. The film may have been made as a counter to the much more comprehensive and contextualized film on the same topic released a year earlier: Silent Bombs: All for the Motherland. [3,4] Though After the Apocalypse tried to neutralize The Polygon as rallying point of the anti-nuclear movement, any film about this topic would always be too disturbing to be used as promotional material for the nuclear industry.
In 1989, the first major anti-nuclear movement was led by author Olzhas 
Suleimenov. Its name, Nevada-Semipalatinsk, was named after two nuclear 
test sites in the US and the USSR (Not mentioned in After the Apocalypse).
It is possible that there was no deliberate plot to shape the bias of the film. Antony Butts may have just worked independently and met a few people like Dr. Lukashenko along his way and found them, for reasons unstated, more convincing than the detailed and articulate explanations given by the Cold War veteran neuropathologist, Dr. Gusev. In the end, the film was quickly forgotten in the days just after the Fukushima catastrophe because, firstly, its subject matter was too grim for most people spend an hour with. Secondly, it could satisfy no one. For nuclear opponents it smelled of propaganda, while the nuclear industry had nothing to gain in encouraging people to see it.

Notes

[1] Antony Butts (director), “After the Apocalypse,” Tigerlily Films, May 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kVBNiLqJlw (official trailer).
[3] Gerald Sperling, “Silent bombs for the Motherland,” Al Jazeera, July 25, 2010.
[4] Gerald Sperling (producer) & Rob King (director), Silent Bombs: All for the Motherland, 4 Square Productions Canada, 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5aUVQiKVKJQ
The photos featured above are stills from this film. Dr. Gusev was interviewed in this film as well, and he stated, “Oncological diseases and death in that group—that can be extrapolated to the whole irradiated population—were two times higher than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Reading List
The nuclear lobby might wish to label these books and articles as examples of the “idiotic nonsense of rhetoric and fear,” but they are all written by qualified scientists. Some of them lost government support for radiation studies as soon as they produced research findings that were troublesome for the nuclear industry.

Helen Caldicott, Nuclear Power is Not the Answer (The New Press, 2007).
Benjamin Dessus & Bernard Laponche, En finir avec le nucléaire: Pourquoi et comment (Seuil, 2011). (Finishing with Nuclear: Why and How).
Gordon Edwards, “Consideration of Environmental Impacts on Temporary Storage of Spent Fuel After Cessation of Reactor Operation,” Docket ID No. NRC-2012-0246: submitted by The Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, http://www.ccnr.org/CCNR_NRC_2013.pdf.
Ian Fairlie, “A hypothesis to explain childhood cancers near nuclear power plants,” Journal of Environmental Radioactivity 133, July 2014, Pages 10–17. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0265931X13001811.
John Gofman & Arthur R. Tamplin. Poisoned Power: The Case Against Nuclear Power Before and After Three Mile Island (Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, 1979) http://www.ratical.org/radiation/CNR/PP/.
Gayle Green, The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Alice Stewart and the Secrets of Radiation (University of Michigan Press, 2001).




2015/02/18

Bikini: La Bombe Anatomique

If people know about the American nuclear weapons that were exploded in the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, they tend to think the swimsuit of the same name is just a strange coincidence. There is no apparent connection, but actually it was more intentional and profound than one would at first think.
In July 1946, Louis Réard was told that his upcoming swimsuit design was something the world was not ready for, so, feeling he needed to make a big splash, he grabbed a name out of the recent headlines and called his two-piece creation the bikini. The swimsuit debuted on July 5, 1946 at the pool in the Hotel Molidor, Paris, just five days after the first of many nuclear explosions in the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands.
In fact, the arrival of the bikini had the effect of a bomb in the fashion world. The reaction was so extreme that Réard even had trouble finding a model willing to wear it for the debut. At last, a nude dancer named Micheline Bernardini rose to the occasion and claimed her fame as the first woman to wear a bikini. Commentators stretched their imagination to relate it to all things atomic, saying for example that it was a “weapon of mass seduction” on the beaches and fashion runways of the world. By the early 1960s, the sexual revolution had arrived and everything changed. At the end of the decade it was standard beachwear in Europe and the Americas. 

In his book Hungary to Hollywood Express, Eric Plamondon describes the public reaction in 1946:

The press was in a frenzy about the first bombe anatomique, as it was called in publicity. In baptizing his creation with the name of the atoll where the most destructive weapon in history had been used, he said he was creating a “weapon of mass peace,” thinking that when we can see women strolling in bikinis, men will forget about making war. The day after the show at the Molitor pool, certain acerbic Parisian critics said that it was called the bikini because it would be the only thing left on the body after a nuclear explosion.[1]
Micheline Bernardini & Louis Réard
It would be easy to say that Louis Réard was just hopping on a popular marketing trend of the day, one that saw the word atomic overused with callous disregard for the victims in Japan and in the Marshall Islands. It appeared he was being falsely ingenuous in saying that a more peaceful world would come from a fashion that seemed to be deliberately designed to incite lust. It’s a given in biology that the sexual instinct is what drives male competition, and the historical record of powerful alpha males acquiring harems and mistresses attests to this fact. Evolutionary psychology claims that female desires are a part of the problem, too, inasmuch as women encourage male competition and show a preference for high-status men.
I have no way of knowing what Réard was really thinking, but I would like to think that he was being more sincere and serious than dimwitted fashion critics gave him credit for. Serious philosophers of the time were pronouncing that mankind had to change, that the bomb had changed everything, that civilization would not survive another war. But how were we to extinguish this aggressive tendency toward war? No one had an answer, but here was an apparently frivolous designer of flimsy swimwear pointing the way. If the selfish gene, the sexual instinct, was the root of all war, then he was right. We would have to get used to women strolling past half-naked, get over the male gaze, and think more deeply about what the bikini says about exposure and vulnerability in the atomic age. The bikini really is a work of art with strings connecting it to the Bikini Atoll.
The bikini was said to be a figurative bombe anatomique, while the atom bomb was too--it literally targeted the human anatomy, so this term coined by Réard was apt in ways he may not have understood himself. Radiation is an assault on the body. Hindsight tells us that the men who brought the bomb into existence were frighteningly reckless about the monster they were unleashing on the world. Scientists knew at the time that radiation posed serious dangers that were very difficult to control, but it wasn’t until the next decade that DNA was understood and the mechanism of genetic damage became clearer. The nuclear industry is still in denial about how bad the problem is, but I think Louis Réard had an intuitive understanding of the problem at the dawn of the nuclear age.

Later research revealed that women, children and especially fetuses are more sensitive than men to the effects of radiation[2], so Réard was very prescient when he asked us to see what his creation revealed. A high-cut bikini accentuates the lower abdomen, while a low-cut one, unlike any article of clothing before it, reveals it for all to see. And what is there to contemplate? Therein lies the crucible of life, yet despite all the other flesh on display, people in 1946 were most scandalized by the sight of the navel. The lovely taut belly framed by a bikini can be the pregnant vessel of three generations—the mother, the daughter, and the ova inside that daughter. And this is what was now exposed—to the radiation from global fallout and to the eyes of the civilization that had made the bombs. I like to think this is why Louis Réard believed the bikini should put an end to war.
A screen shot from my computer, 69 years after the arrival of the bikini:
Smart investors wanted for thorium ponzy schemes. Necessary nukes.
Question more indeed.
Notes

[1] Éric Plamondon, Hongrie-Hollywood Express, Le quartanier, 2011, p. 81. Cited in http://dagi.pagesperso-orange.fr/page-labombe-5.html

[2] For information on the higher vulnerability to radiation in women, children and fetuses, listen to these two episodes of Libby HaLevy’s podcast Nuclear Hotseat:

Episode 165: Interview with Dr. Ian Fairlie on leukemia rates of children living near nuclear plants.


Episode 191: Atomic Eggs: Increased female vulnerability to radiation.

2015/01/27

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.

Antinuclearism

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.

2015/01/19

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.

2015/01/16

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.

2015/01/11

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



Contents:
Great Follies 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.