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 completely 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


Fukushima Daiichi and Other Horror Stories

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Aral Sea

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

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

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

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

How dangerous is a Curie?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Brown, p. 239.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Glimmer of Hope for French Nuclear Veterans

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

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

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

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

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


Looking under the hood of France's energy transition

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

My translation follows…

Le Monde 2014/10/14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are speaking here specifically about EDF and its influence…

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what would these be, considering the budgetary constraints?

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

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

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