French Scientist Bernard Laponche: The reactor produces the means of its own destruction.

French physicist Bernard Laponche speaks about France's nuclear obstinacy, EPR, ITER, and the Energy Transition

Since the Fukushima Dai-ichi catastrophe put the anti-nuclear movement back into public consciousness there has been a surfeit of research and opinionating about nuclear energy and nuclear disarmament. It has become difficult to think of anything original to add to the discourse. But I continue here to add to similar previous posts that highlight voices of physicists and physicians, some of them former nuclear industry insiders, who have spoken out about the way nuclear technologies, both civilian and military, have recklessly endangered life on earth.
These are people who could have had more comfortable and lucrative careers by looking away and working on other matters, but they believed that their privileged position and their knowledge gave them a responsibility to speak out.
The post that follows is a translation that can inform the English-reading world about an insider of the French nuclear industry, Bernard Laponche, who has worked tirelessly for decades to raise the alarm about France's blind commitment to nuclear energy. Every nuclearized country seems to have a few heroes like Monsieur Laponche. They all have a similar message, but they all deserve to be recognized and listened to by a global audience.
In this interview from 2011, he made some predictions which have come true, and others that may be only half right. He said France would pay dearly for the mistake of building the EPR reactor, and on this point he was right on the mark. The costly delays, cancelled projects, disastrous construction flaws, and the resulting bankruptcy of Areva all show that he was right. However, when he said we could count on the Socialist Party to support an enlightened energy transition, he was overly optimistic. The past four years have shown that the attempt to scale back nuclear energy and develop renewables has been very timid so far.
Read on to see what else this French energy expert had to say in June 2011…   
Vincent Remy, "Bernard Laponche : "There is a strong possibility of a major nuclear accident in Europe," Telerama.fr. Published June 18, 2011, updated August 11, 2014.

Bernard Laponche, nuclear physicist, graduate of the Ecole polytechnique, is absolutely certain: France is in error. With le nucléaire, France obstinately privileges a form of energy that is not only dangerous but also obsolete. Meanwhile, other solutions exist, ones which Germany has already started to develop for its energy transition.

He is theirs. He was one of theirs. Bernard Laponche worked at the heart of the Commissariat à l'énergie atomique, where plans for the first French nuclear power plants were taking shape. He was shocked when he noticed the working conditions of the rank and file at la Hague [France's major nuclear fuel processing facility]. He became aware of the danger of the atom and judged it morally unacceptable. From the 1908s, he was active within the CFDT [the trade union Confédération française démocratique du travail], advocating for research in energy consumption and the development of renewable energy sources. He was vindicated in the following decades. But he says France, the only country in the world to have chosen the all-nuclear option, persisted in its errors and blinded itself. It stuck with an energy form of the past, one in which innovation is impossible. Nuclear represents not only a terrifying threat, for us and the generations that will follow, but it also condemns the country to missing the boat on the indispensable energy revolution.


Nuclear energy is always presented as a very sophisticated technology. You say that it is just a matter of it being "the most dangerous way to boil water." Is this view controversial?

Not really… A nuclear reactor is just a heater. It produces heat. But whereas the heat in thermal power stations comes from the combustion of coal or gas, in a nuclear power plant it comes from splitting uranium atoms. This heat is used to produce steam. The steam spins a turbine which produces electricity. So nuclear energy is not a miraculous way of creating electricity from the reactor. It's not as if electricity just arises spontaneously from the reactor.

Why has this image of sophistication been promoted?

The promoters of nuclear don't want to emphasize the primary source, which is uranium. Doing so would associate it with the origins of nuclear energy which were military and strategic applications. Moreover, when they let people think that electricity is produced directly, they give the impression that there is something magical about it, and this makes it seem three times more powerful than it really is. This is because two thirds of the heat is lost. This heat is lost in cooling the reactors and transferring the heat to rivers and oceans.

Tell us about the fuel.

It is thin rods of uranium, lightly enriched with the isotope U235, in the case of French reactors. Fission was recently discovered in 1938. A neutron strikes a uranium nucleus, which explodes, releasing fragments, energy, and neutrons. These neutrons strike other uranium nuclei and a chain reaction starts. These multiplying fissions produce heat. The fission fragments are also new radioactive products which emit alpha, beta and gamma radiation. So inside a reactor you produce heat, which is the benefit, and also radioactive substances, notably plutonium—the most dangerous element you can imagine that existed previously in nature only in trace amounts. We should have asked in the beginning, "Is this way of boiling water really acceptable?"

But this chain reaction can be stopped at any time, can't it?

During normal functioning they lower the control rods into the core of the reactor. These are made of material that absorbs neutrons, so the reaction stops. But they have to continue to cool the reactors after this because the radioactive materials continue to produce heat. So by its very nature this technology involves multiple risks. If the control rod insertion fails, there is a runaway chain reaction, which can cause a nuclear explosion. If there is a crack in the cooling circuit, then there is a loss of cooling, and the extreme heat destroys the fuel rod lining. Radioactive substances escape and hydrogen gas accumulates, which can explode. Right from the start it involves the creation of large quantities of radioactive materials. Catastrophe is intrinsic in the technology. The reactor produces the means of its own destruction.

But there are multiple safety systems...

No matter how much you multiply the safety systems, there are still situations in which they would not suffice. A case in point is Chernobyl. There was a fault in the reactor design and an error in operation. In Fukushima, the flooding was caused by the tsunami. In Blayais, in Geronde, France, the power plant was flooded and we came very close to a major accident. No one had imagined the force of the storm in 1999. There have been accidents that didn't involve tsunamis or flooding, like at Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979. We could also imagine in many countries an armed conflict, or sabotage. To start with nuclear energy involves the production of large quantities of radioactive materials. The reactor produces the means of its own destruction.

Have there been any innovations in nuclear technology?

There have been none since the debut of nuclear science in the 1940s and 1950s. The French reactors are really just larger versions of what was on nuclear-powered American submarines in the 1950s. Reactors, and uranium enrichment and reprocessing were all developed during WWII. They just increased the power and added safety features. But because the systems have become more complex, they don't always guarantee safety.

It's hard to believe there hasn't been any major innovation…

Yes, but there was actually the fast breeder reactor! With Superphénix, they changed the concept of the reactor. Fortunately, it was shut down in 1998 because it was based on the use of plutonium. How could they have imagined making such a dangerous material the basis for a reactor technology to be exported all over the world?

Nicolas Sarkozy declared that if we refuse nuclear, we'll have to go back to using candles. What do you think about this statement?

It's annoying to hear leaders who understand nothing continue to say whatever they please. But Nicolas Sarkozy is actually right. One day, and it may come this summer even, French people will need to light their homes with candles because we are the only country that has chosen to produce 80% of its electricity from a single source, nuclear, and even a single type of reactor, the pressurized water reactor. If we were forced to stop all these reactors, we would indeed have to use candles. The blackout wouldn't have to be caused by a catastrophe. It could just be small generic problem, a drought, or a heat wave. There would be no water to cool the reactors. In contrast, if we decided to get out of nuclear in twenty years, we could advance our innovations in energy production and thus avoid having to use candles.

The proponents of nuclear say that in France, with our new EPR reactor, now under construction in Flamanville, risk has been reduced to zero…

Every country promises that its reactors are better than others. Before Fukushima the Japanese said the same thing as the French. We've already seen five reactors destroyed (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and three in Fukushima), out of 450 that exist in the world, which caused hundreds of square kilometers to become uninhabitable. According to experts, the theoretical probability of accidents had been calculated to be one in 100,000 "reactor-years" [one reactor-year means one reactor functioning for one year], and one in a million for an accident as bad as Chernobyl. What actually happened shows that the odds are 300 times higher than what was calculated by the experts. So there is a high possibility of a major nuclear accident in Europe.

Could a major innovation make you change your mind?

I don't see a solution in the present circumstances, not in engineering nor in scientific knowledge. I don't say that in the future some genius won't find a new, clever way to exploit the energy locked up in the nucleus—in a way that doesn't produce mountains of radioactive waste—but for the moment, there isn't anything conceivable.

Why are you opposed to ITER, the center in Cadarache for developing fusion energy, under the guidance of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency)?

Fusion is the opposite of fission. It's the combining of two nuclei, two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium (a proton and an neutron) and tritium (a proton and two neutrons). This fusion releases energy, but we have to find a way to fuse these two nuclei. In the sun they fuse due to the force of gravity. On earth, we can use an atomic bomb. That works quite well. The fission explosion induces the fusion of nuclei, which produces a much stronger second explosion. That's the hydrogen bomb, or the H bomb. To get fusion without a bomb, we have to create colossal magnetic fields in order to attain a temperature of a hundred million degrees. ITER began from a Soviet project, and it's a laboratory experiment of pharaonic scale. Very powerful neutrons bombard the steel walls of a reactor. These materials become radioactive and they have to be replaced very often. I'm not a fusion specialist, but I recall that our two recent physics Nobel Prize winners in France, Pierre-Gilles de Gennes and Georges Charpak, have said that ITER was not a good idea. They favored doing fundamental research before building this enormous facility. No one followed their advice, and our politicians leaned on arguments that were pure public relations—we're making the energy of the sun—to ensure that ITER would be built in France.


Because France wants to be the nuclear leader of the world. The Japanese wanted ITER, but their Nobel Prize physicist, Masatoshi Koshiba, said, "No way," because of the seismic risk. I think that the project will be halted because its price is rising at an exceptional rate. And no one ever asked, "What if it doesn't work? What would a fusion reactor be like?" The group negaWatt has asked, "Why would we want to recreate the energy of the sun when it already lands on us in such large quantities?"

How do you respond to those who think that because of global warming, and the necessity of reducing CO2 emissions, we have to develop more nuclear energy?

First of all, we can't make the reduction of CO2 emissions the only criteria in our choices for how we make electricity. Is it necessary to accept that, for the sake of the climate, every five or ten years we'll have an accident like Fukushima somewhere in the world? In addition, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has shown that if we want to meet our CO2 reduction targets, half of the effort needs to be in energy efficiency. For the other half, resort to renewables is essential. Nuclear represents only 6%. So we have to put the advantage of nuclear in this perspective.

You began your career at the CEA and you participated in the early development of nuclear. What happened?

I even wrote a thesis on plutonium, and I never questioned anything. Everything is very compartmentalized at the CEA. I made calculations for the EDF3 plant in Chinon, and I had no idea about the risks of accidents or the problem of the waste. I worked with brilliant people. Then I got active in the CFDT (trade union), after 1968, and one of the issues was the conditions of the workers at la Hague. I realized that I, as an engineer in my office, knew nothing about their working conditions. And I didn't know that the people of la Hague had no idea what a nuclear reactor was. So in 1975, we collectively wrote a best-seller called L'Electronucléaire en France, and the head of the CEA at the time recognized it for its quality. To write that book, I worked for six months on American documents because in France we had nothing. The CFDT then took a position against the nuclear program. I started working on alternatives to nuclear, and, in 1982, I joined the l'Agence française pour la maîtrise de l'énergie (ADEME).

That was thirty years ago. What were you interested in then?

The same things as now: energy efficiency, renewable energy! The principles of photovoltaics, and thus solar panels, had already been worked out. Today we only speak about electricity, but what we should be installing everywhere is solar water heaters. Nothing could be simpler: a liquid heat conductor circulates through tubes under glass, and you get 60C water. Germany, getting less sunshine than France, has ten times as many solar water heaters. In Midi (south of France) there are almost none.

That doesn't require much innovation…

Innovation is about, above all else, lower costs. Wind power has already been proven competitive with nuclear. In photovoltaics, Germany anticipates a cost decrease of 5% every year. There is a lot of research to be done on marine energy, currents, waves, and the heat of the earth called geothermic energy. Renewable energy sources, the collective term for all these, are each very different, and they could cover, little by little, all energy needs. Germany estimates they'll cover 80% of energy needs by 2050. This is possible, as long as we continue to increase energy efficiency.

We produce electricity from nuclear at a modest price, but we don't account for the cost of dismantling and long-term management of the radioactive waste. Has this penalized renewable energies?

Yes, and since we've built too many nuclear power plants, there is always pressure to consume more electricity, particularly for its most idiotic use—heating, for which France is the champion in Europe. We build mediocre housing, we install radiators, which cost nothing, and this creates a global electric power problem: in Europe one half of the difference between average consumption and the winter peak consumption is caused by France. As a result, in the winter we have to buy electricity from Germany, which produces the needed electricity from carbon fuels. Aside from heating, the French consume 25% more electricity than Germans. In addition to having homes that are better insulated, Germans also have more efficient appliances, and they consume more carefully because electricity is a bit more expensive there.

What are the big energy innovations that will come next?

Smart grids, intelligent networks! Thanks to computing, we can optimize the production and distribution of electricity. At the scale of a village or a region, we can coordinate consumption. For example, we could see to it that refrigerators would not all start at the same time. Nuclear advocates always say that renewable energies fluctuate. The wind doesn't always blow. The sun doesn't always shine. They say that if we don't have nuclear, we'll need millions of wind turbines, but this is not the case when we think in terms of combinations. Germany is studying networks that combine biomass, hydro, wind and solar. And they fit with demand: at night demand is low, so they use wind energy to pump water to a reservoir behind a dam which will produce energy during the day. This is the big innovation of the energy transition, and it is the opposite of a centralized system like nuclear. So what does the future look like? A territory with intelligent meters which make a perfect junction between consumption and local production. Small is beautiful. Germans are succeeding with this transition right now because they made the decision to go this route. That's the key: we have to make the decision. That requires a real awareness of the situation.

How do you explain the lack of awareness in France?

On one part it is the arrogance of the Corps des ingénieurs des mines, on the other it is the servility of politics. A small techno-bureaucracy has decided energy policy for a long time. They made the decisions on how to exploit coal, then oil, and then nuclear. They always went to extremes and then imposed on politics their single-minded vision for electricity generation.

Did that happen because of the centralization of power?

Completely! In the 1970s, a Swedish researcher did research that found nuclear was adopted in some countries and not in others. It concluded that an authoritarian, centralized politico-administrative structure enabled the development of nuclear energy. This was the case in the USSR and France where nuclear was built for false reasons such as energy independence and national prestige and power. A link was maintained between civilian and military applications. The CEA had a military branch, and Areva supplies plutonium to the army. This military-state-industrial complex now considers [German chancellor] Angela Merkel to be crazy. Instead of noticing that the Germans are doing things differently and we should look at their approach seriously, we just decide that they must be fools. Our leaders chant that our reactors are the safest, that nuclear is the future, and we are going to sell our technology everywhere. This is the argument they have always made, but France has barely sold nine reactors in the last fifty years, aside from the two that are under construction in China. This is not the way it was supposed to be. In ten years, Germany has created 400,000 jobs in renewable energy.

Aside from environmentalists, no one, not even the Left, wants to renounce nuclear…

Things are evolving fast. Fukushima has shaken up some of the more reasonable nuclear advocates. I hope the German decision [to quickly phase out nuclear power] will have an influence, not on our actual leaders, but on industry and on financing. They should be saying to themselves: can we keep investing in such a thing? There used to be an Areva-Siemens alliance backing EPR reactors, but Siemens got out years ago. We could always carry on saying the Germans are wrong, but it is difficult to look at the performance of their industries over recent decades and say that they are falling behind.

Can environmentalists depend on the Socialist Party?

Definitely. Already, in 2000, everything was ready for the EPR, but Dominique Voynet, Minister of the Environment, said to Lionel Jospin, "If you go ahead with the EPR, I'll resign." It was the only time she put her resignation up as a bargaining chip, and the EPR was not advanced at the time. I worked with her as an advisor on these issues, and I produced 350 reports for her. There was a daily struggle between the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Industry, which made a mockery of safety. Unfortunately, the EPR was relaunched when Chirac came to power in 2002. And it is going to cost us very dearly. For half a century we have wasted energy, under whatever pretense. It is now urgent that we become a civilization that uses energy in a way that doesn't endanger life.

Vincent Remy, "Bernard Laponche : "There is a strong possibility of a major nuclear accident in Europe," Telerama.fr. Published June 18, 2011, updated August 11, 2014



Insider Trading Indictment in AREVA-UraMin Deal: Coup de Fric atomique

Coup de Fric atomique*

Translation of "Coup de Fric atomique," Le Canard Enchaîné, 2015/10/07

On June 15, 2007, the nuclear giant AREVA, headed then by Anne Lauvergeon, announced that it was launching a take-over bid (offre public d’achat) for UraMin, a small Canadian mining company which held uranium deposits in Namibia, Central African Republic, and South Africa—deposits which were said to be enormous. AREVA spent just under 1.8 billion euros, to which another 1 billion would be invested later. But it was all for nothing. The purported marvelous uranium deposits soon vanished in the wind.

In bankruptcy now, AREVA will soon have to be saved by ratepayers. According to Agence France Press (2015/05/10), the state will have to inject 2.5 billion euros.

Now a new charming sequel has been added to the story. It was learned last week that according to Tracfin, the anti-money laundering organization, Olivier Fric, the husband of Anne Lauvergeon, had bought, through an offshore banking intermediary, 300,000 shares of UraMin on the Toronto Stock Exchange. This was just a few days before the announcement of the take-over bid. He resold them on June 20th, 2007 for a profit of 300,000 euros.

In early September a supplementary indictment for insider trading was issued to the husband of “Atomic Anne.” Tracfin noted:

One can reasonably imagine that M. Fric profited from his relationship with someone in control of a legal entity, a relationship from which he gained information that was not available to other actors in the marketplace.

Such are the dreams that ensue from sweet pillow talk of uranium.

Translation of "Coup de Fric atomique," Le Canard Enchaîné, 2015/10/07
*The title was not translated because there is no way to capture the double meaning of fric in this headline. In French fric is a slang expression for money.

From Wikipedia:

Tracfin (Traitement du renseignement et action contre les circuits financiers clandestins) is a service of the French Ministry of Finance that fights money laundering. Since its foundation in 1990 its aim is to fight against illegal financial operations, money laundering and terrorism financing.


Trans-border Activism: A Casualty of Cold War II

Trans-border Activism: A Casualty of Cold War II

International NGOs that assist citizens suffering from the abuses of corporations and environmental degradation are increasingly seen by governments as nuisances, embarrassments and even as threats to national security. Russia, India and Canada are a few of the nations that have protested against these “meddlers” and looked for ways to keep them out.
At first glance, it seems absurd to say that well-intentioned organizations should be banned and stopped from assisting helpless victims with their struggles for justice. But the governments that are complaining about the interference are not entirely wrong for being upset with the political affiliations and agendas of some groups that come under the guise of helping vulnerable people suffering injustices. Unfortunately, there are organizations operating across borders who are giving a bad name to the NGOs that truly are independent and focused solely on helping the disenfranchised. These fake NGOs, or once-respected NGOs now compromised by deals with government or corporate agendas, are like the black block thugs who show up at peaceful demonstrations and give the larger movement a bad reputation.
A case in point is the recent pressure that Russia put on the Russian NGO Planet of Hopes. For fifteen years the founder, Nadejda Kutepova, helped victims of the Southern Urals radiation disasters in their struggles to win recognition and compensation. In July 2015, she fled Russia after being vilified in the media and threatened with prosecution for being a “foreign agent” because of one of the donations she accepted. She is now in France where she has applied for asylum.[1]

Nadejda Kutepova (left) in a photo from the Radio-Canada
report on radiological contamination in the Southern Urals
There is no disputing the value of the work she did, or the goodness of her cause. There are so many ways the Russian government could have done the right thing so that Ms. Kutepova would not have needed to look outside Russia for support. Russia could have stopped the financial harassment that was designed to neutralize Planet of Hopes, and it could have created some easy terms under which the organization could continue to operate. It could have even offered a government grant to replace the objectionable source of foreign funding. Or a real genius move would have been to just take responsibility for the consequences of the environmental catastrophe so that ordinary citizens wouldn’t have to go bankrupt, scrounge and beg for the money needed to assert their rights. But that would have required the government to face up to some unpleasant facts about its global nuclear reactor sales campaign, which depends on promises to treat foreign-generated nuclear waste back at the Maiak plant in the Urals.[2] Furthermore, facing up to the consequences would highlight the danger of renewing the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, Russia has too much at stake, so it can’t tolerate dissenting voices that just want the state to take responsibility of the damage that has been caused.
Nonetheless, the Russian government had some good reasons to be displeased with the activities of many American “NGOs” and “independent non-profit organizations” that have been active in Russia for many years. Unfortunately, the organization which Ms. Kutepova accepted donations from, the American National Endowment for Democracy (NED), is one which the Russian government objected to. NED makes no secret of the fact that it is financed by the US Congress, although it makes the implausible claim that its sponsor has no political influence because it has an “independent” board.[3] A report in The Guardian cited the Russian accusation that NED gave $14 million to support the overthrow of the Ukrainian government in 2014.[4]
Gerald Sussman’s 2006 paper on American “democracy assistance” since the 1990s gives a full account of NED’s role as one of the primary organizations that have been active in promoting American interests in the post-Soviet world. The introduction reads:

The methods of manipulating foreign elections have been modified since the heyday of CIA cloak and dagger operations, but the general objectives of imperial rule are unchanged. Today, the U.S. government relies less on the CIA in most cases and more on the relatively transparent initiatives undertaken by such public and private organizations as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Freedom House, George Soros’ Open Society, and a network of other well-financed globetrotting public and private professional political organizations, primarily American, operating in the service of the state’s parallel neoliberal economic and political objectives.[5]

 Thus Planet of Hopes, with its small NED grant, became collateral damage in the great game being played out over eastward NATO expansion. This raises the question of whether NED ever really cared about how the pursuit of bigger goals would leave small organizations like Planet of Hopes twisting in the wind once the backlash came. After all, it’s not as if the US government or NED has ever been morally outraged by the consequences of operating nuclear facilities outside of Russia. The tactic of funding an anti-nuclear activist in Russia raises the question of whether a sincere and dedicated activist, and the people she helps, were cynically used in a bid to slow down the Russian nuclear project, to give GE-Hitachi and Toshiba-Westinghouse a fighting chance against Rosatom’s growing dominance in nuclear exports. If NED had a few million dollars to meddle in Ukraine, it is obvious now that it owes Ms. Kutepova a few euros to help her live in exile, but this would present another dilemma for her. If she accepted, this would be taken as proof by the Russian government that she really was under America’s wing.
It is also notable that while NED took this keen interest in helping the victims of Russia’s Cold War nuclear contamination, it turned a blind eye to the similar legacy on the home front. For example, the Hanford Downwinders lawsuits crawled through the justice system for decades because the plaintiffs were no match for the large corporations that had a guarantee of government subsidy of their legal fees. Rather than settle they just kept enriching Kirkland and Ellis, a Chicago law firm, in order to stall the case until the victims gave up or died.[6] How would the American public react if a Russian government-funded organization stepped in to help the farmers who lived downwind from America’s Cold War plutonium factory? How would it not be conceived of as interference in national security?
For Ms. Kutepova, the decision to take the NED grant may have been naïve, or something done out of frustration with the official harassment she was subjected to. It is something she didn’t explain in her recent interview with journalists from the French magazine Mediapart. [7] If she was not able to read English or not well-informed about American propaganda methods, she probably walked into this situation not fully aware of the pitfalls that lay ahead. In any case, her work remained focused on helping victims of radiation poisoning and nothing else.

Photo from the Radio-Canada report on
radiological contamination in the Southern Urals
For anyone who follows American politics, the NED website has several tip-offs that immediately flag it as smoothly aligned with American foreign policy. For example, it gave an award to Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner for doing something unspecified related to democracy promotion. A map of its grant recipients shows that it has an interest in promoting democracy only in countries that have resisted American neoliberal economic policies. Countries like Cuba and Venezuela are deemed to be in dire need of democracy development. On the other hand, NED shows no interest in fostering democracy at home. It has nothing to say about voter registration, reform of the electoral college, reform of the first-past-the-post system, district gerrymandering, making election day a holiday, or eliminating the influence of corporations on election campaigns. Nor does it find any flaws in American allies like Indonesia and Japan. West Papua could use a democracy enhancement grant so that it could teach the world how their nation was given away to Indonesia in a sham election in 1969 in which a total of only 1,000 votes were cast at gunpoint.[8] Or a grant could go to Japan to help it find ways to get more than 50% of eligible voters to the polls.[9]
In all of this there is a grim lesson for anyone who wants to organize support for any cause. All would-be donors have to be vetted for their ties to governments or to how they are beholden to other interests, and in many cases these will not be easy to uncover. Even when a source of support seems untainted, there is no way to be sure that the national government will not declare it as a “terrorist” organization or foreign agent because questioning national projects like nuclear energy or oil sands development is now framed by governments as threats to economic security, which is then equated with national security.
Photo from the Radio-Canada report on radiological
contamination in the Southern Urals
None of what I’ve written here should be taken as a criticism of Nadejda Kutepova’s solid record of defending victims of radiation poisoning, nor do I take sides in the New Cold war or find reason to rejoice in the fact that Russian cruise missiles are now falling on the Middle East instead of American cruise missiles. I feel disgusted, and though I wouldn’t wish harm on anyone, Mercutio’s line from Romeo and Juliet comes to mind: A plague a' both your houses! Any nation that still insists on mining uranium, creating nuclear waste and possessing nuclear weapons has indeed cursed itself with no help from enemies. It brings the nuclear plague and a pathological security obsession upon itself.

UPDATE 2016/09/13: Read the exchange between Jill Stein, presidential candidate for the American Green Party, and two persecuted Russian environmentalists, Yevgeniya Chirikova and Nadezhda Kutepova.


[1] Amélie Poinssot and Michel de Pracontal, “A Russian antinuclear activist asks for asylum in France,” Mediapart, October 2, 2015. English translation at: http://nf2045.blogspot.jp/2015/10/a-russian-antinuclear-activist-asks-for.html

[2] Jason Zasky, “Plutopia” (interview with author Kate Brown), Failure Magazine, January 19, 2014, http://failuremag.com/feature/article/plutopia/

[4] Alec Luhn, “National Endowment for Democracy is first ‘undesirable’ NGO banned in Russia,” The Guardian, July 28, 2015, 

[7] Amélie Poinssot and Michel de Pracontal.

See also:

Daria Litvinova, "TV Witch Hunt Drives Human Rights Activist Out of Russia," Moscow Times, October 15, 2015.

"Leftist MP wants to brand media companies financed from abroad," Russia Today, October 22, 2015, https://www.rt.com/politics/319383-leftist-mp-wants-to-brand/ 


A Russian antinuclear activist asks for asylum in France

October 2, 2015

translation of 
Une militante russe antinucléaire demande l'asile à la France

See also a related update to this article:
Charles Digges, "Russian environmental NGO sues state TV for accusing it of espionage," Bellona.org, March 2, 2016.

by Amélie Poinssot and Michel de Pracontal

(Mediapart wishes to sell their content by subscription, so if you feel bad about taking this English translation for free, go to their website and buy a 15-day trial for 1 euro. This translation has been published for non-commercial use. Give credit and citation to the original authors.)

UPDATE (2016/04/05) It is reported here that France has granted political asylum to Ms. Kutepova.

UPDATE (2015/11/10): WECF France is raising money to support Nadejda Kutepova while she waits for her asylum case to be decided. You can contribute here.

As the head of the NGO Planet of Hopes [Planeta Nadezhd], Nadejda Kutepova has fought for fifteen years for the victims of radioactive contamination in the Urals, near the Maiak factory which, in 1957, gave the world its first nuclear catastrophe. In July, she was forced by circumstances to dissolve the NGO and leave Russia. This Friday, October 2nd, as Francois Hollande receives Vladimir Putin in Paris, she is asking for asylum in France.
Nadejda Kutepova (left) in a photo from the Radio-Canada
report on radiological contamination in the Southern Urals.
Nadejda Kutepova’s story goes from the Soviet past to the Russia of today. She has been fighting unrelentingly for the last fifteen years to get recognition of the nuclear disaster which began in the Urals in 1949. She found herself under attack in 2012 when the Kremlin began clamping down on NGOs, in particular ones concerned with the military and the environment. Threatened with prosecution, she finally left her country in July.
With her departure, one of the most polluted regions of the world is losing its strongest advocate. The Ozersk region (south of Ekaterinburg in the Urals) has been widely irradiated, since the post-war period, and the contamination is still going on thanks to the continuing operations at Maiak. The name is less well-known than Chernobyl and Fukushima, but the gravity of the disaster is comparable, especially if one considers that it has been ongoing for close to sixty years and nothing has been done to resolve the contamination.
It was in 1946, at the dawn of the Cold War, that construction began on the nuclear complex. It was to produce the plutonium necessary for a Soviet atom bomb. It was built by forced labor under Stalin, close to the closed city of Ozersk, between Chelyabinsk and Ekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk in the Soviet period). Such closed cities near military-industrial complexes were fairly common in the Soviet Union. They didn’t appear on maps, and permits were required to enter them. In total, there were ten closed cities devoted to nuclear weapons. The first uranium-graphite reactor was opened in Maiak in 1948, and the first bomb was detonated in 1949.
Between 1949 and 1957, very large quantities of highly radioactive liquid waste were dumped into the Techa, a 240 kilometer-long river that flowed past dozens of villages. Today, the Techa is the most radioactively contaminated body of water in the world, and nearby Lake Karachai is considered one of the most polluted places on the planet.
In 1957, an explosion in a container of highly radioactive waste caused a new massive contamination along a plume that was 300 kilometers long and 30-50 kilometers wide. In Russian it is referred to as VOURS--Vostochono-Ouralski Radioactivni Sled, the Eastern Ural Radioactive Plume. This explosion was covered up for twenty years before it was revealed by the biologist Jaurès Medvedev (twin brother of the dissident historian Roy Medvedev). Medvedev, in exile in the UK, published the first article in 1976, followed by the book Nuclear Disaster in the Urals in 1988. Taking a name from the closest town on the map (Maiak still didn’t officially exist), the disaster was then designated as the Kychtym nuclear disaster.
Lake Karachai was close to Maiak and was used as a dump for masses of radioactive liquids. In the spring of 1967 it ran dry and the wind carried off radioactive sediment as far as 75 kilometers, causing large-scale contamination, notably of Cesium 137.
In addition to these three massive emissions, the Maiak complex released radioactive wastes continuously in lesser quantities. Meanwhile, the contamination problems were never resolved. According to the relevant estimates given by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), the wastes dumped into the Techa in the early period, essentially between 1949 and 1951, amounted to 100 PBq (10E15 becquerels). According to Patrick Boyer of the IRSN (France’s Institut de radioprotection et de sûreté nucléaire ), that is about four times as much as what Fukushima has released into the Pacific Ocean.
The releases of Strontium 90 and Cesium 137 during the 1949-51 period also contaminated the Techa floodplain, an area of 240 square kilometers where 80 square kilometers were above the Chernobyl zone limit of 3.7x10E10 Bq/km2.
Starting in 1956, while Maiak continued to grow, storage areas were built out of natural ponds or by building dams on the Techa. Military production of plutonium ended in 1987. At the time there were seven military reactors on the site. Afterwards, Maiak was put to use for both military and civilian purposes, for producing radioactive materials, and for reprocessing of nuclear fuel.
In spite of the waste reservoirs, liquid contamination never stopped. The main dam leaked, as did creeks flowing out of the canals built to channel the water, and contaminants leached out of the soil. “These are long-term mechanisms, very long,” explains Patrick Boyer to Mediapart. “The situation is stabilized in the sense that the releases are much less than they were in the 1950s, but the leaks continue, and the Techa is going to remain very contaminated for decades.  Additionally, the lakes used as reservoirs of nuclear waste contain a considerable level of radioactivity, which constitutes a risk.”
Contamination in the Maiak complex and the surrounding area has had effects on workers and the rural population. According to a Norwegian report, in 1949, workers received a dose corresponding to 1,000 times the maximum allowed dose for nuclear workers today. The villagers along the Techa were also exposed to high levels of radiation which led to high mortality rates and chromosomal abnormalities. Even though the practices of the Cold War no longer occur, radioactive effluents still flow out. The IAEA document mentioned above notes that releases of strontium in the Techa doubled in the 2001-2004 period.
In fact, the population of the region remains exposed to a level of radioactivity which should, according to a 2011 report by CRIIRAD (Comité de recherche et d'information indépendantes sur la radioactivité), require evacuation. This was precisely one of the struggles that Nadejda Kutepova fought, but Russian authorities paid no attention. The pressures that led to her departure from Russia are symptomatic of the opacity that surrounds the Maiak site. Since 2011, scientific data on the site has no longer been available.
The following is an interview with Nadejda Kutepova that was conducted on October 2, 2015 just as Vladimir Putin was welcomed at the Élysée by Francois Hollande to discuss the wars in Ukraine and Syria.
The revelation, decades later

Mediapart (italics):

Fifteen years ago you established the NGO “Planet of Hopes” in order to aid the victims of radioactive contamination from Maiak. What led you to this cause?

Nadejda Kutepova (regular text):

My grandmother was a chemical engineer and she worked at the complex from the time it opened in 1948. The Soviet state wanted, like the Americans, to develop nuclear weapons, so they built a secret factory in the Siberian forest next to the closed city of Ozersk. People who worked there were forbidden from talking about their work. In 1965, my grandmother died of lymphatic cancer. I never knew her. At the time of the accident in 1957, when a container of highly radioactive waste exploded, my father was a student in Ekaterinburg. He belonged to the Komsomols (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League) so he was immediately mobilized as a liquidator. He worked there for nearly five years. In 1985, he died of intestinal cancer. I was a teenager at the end of his life, and it was horrific. He lived with a colostomy bag and was consumed by alcoholism.
But it was only later that I understood what could have caused him and my grandmother to die. One fine day in 1999, I was invited to a conference on the environment organized in Chelyabinsk, the big regional city. It was there that I discovered that the whole Ozersk region is contaminated, yet the local population ignores the situation completely. Officially, the region is not polluted. The inhabitants eat mushrooms and fish in the rivers without asking any questions. This conference was a revelation. At that moment I decided to establish an NGO. I had studied law, sociology and political science at university. I wanted the inhabitants who were still there to have the means to leave and I wanted the unrecognized victims to be able to defend themselves.
In the first years of operation of the factory, 1949-52, all the highly radioactive wastes were dumped into the Techa. Cases of leukemia and premature death multiplied in the villages along the river, so the factory started managing the wastes in metal tanks. During the next decade, 34 out of 39 villages along the river were evacuated. At the same time, radioactive wastes were dumped in Lake Karachai. It was only in 1962 that the authorities announced that they would stop these practices.
In reality, the contamination of the surrounding waters never ended. In 2005, the director of the factory at Maiak, Vitali Sadovnikov, was prosecuted for having let the factory release, starting in the year 2000, tens of thousands of cubic meters of radioactive water into the Techa. Sadovnikov was given amnesty by the Duma (Russian parliament) in 2006. Nonetheless, the files on the court decision on Sadovnikov show that 30 to 40 cubic meters of radioactive water were dumped between 2001 and 2004! Since then, we haven’t even had access to the file, and the Maiak factory denies all responsibility for the contamination of the river.
Do the Russian authorities today recognize the victims of radioactive contamination?
A law was enacted in 1993, inspired by the 1991 law on victims of the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe. This law provides social assistance to the victims of the 1957 accident and to people affected by the contamination of the river—but not to their spouses or children. It specifies the typology of illnesses: if the patient could prove a direct link to her work at Maiak or to a place where she lived with radiation from Maiak, then she had a right to compensation.
In total, 19,000 people have been classified as eligible. The figure is always declining because of deaths. Five years ago there were 23,000. But this only represents a small part of the population affected by the consequences of contamination in the region. Our NGO estimates that the number has grown now to about 100,000.
The typology is very restrictive. It was reduced a lot by scientists after Chernobyl. There are only four categories: cancers, blood diseases, genetic instability, and chronic cellular dysfunction. Mental health and psychosomatic problems, for example, are not on the list. Furthermore, when a patient applies for compensation, a “council of experts” gets together at the center for radiation research in the Urals. Made up of eleven persons, they vote by a show of hands on whether the patient should be compensated. These men are not independent. They raise their hands under pressure from their supervisors. And who are we to question their decisions? They respond that they are the scientists. It is they who have the knowledge. We have tried to set up procedures to appeal their decisions. It is impossible.
Another problem is that many people lived and worked in the city at various jobs, but their occupations were not considered to have put them at risk. These were such people as the teachers at the technical college in Maiak, or workers at the train station in the neighboring town. They couldn’t claim compensation. Others didn’t live within the officially recognized zone of contamination. There is also the story of the children of the village of Karabolka who worked regularly in the fields. They were mobilized after the accident to bury carrots and potatoes. For weeks they handled irradiated produce. But unlike the liquidators, they never received certificates proving their participation. Fifty years later they have finally been recognized.
European Court of Human Rights

Still now local people don’t have the chance to get proper medical tests. When they are done, they are often very cursory. I know a woman who had a chromosome test done, but they looked at only one hundred cells. In order to do it properly, they need at least 500 to 1,000. As a result, no pathology was proven.
Compensation is not large. It depends on the occupation and the place the applicant lived. A former liquidator, for example, receives a food supplement of 600 rubles a month (which is worth about 8 euros at present rates), as well a small payment annually for health care. The recipient has access to free medicine and can, in theory, go once a year to a sanatorium. In some cases, a housing benefit is available.
What did your NGO accomplish?

Our NGO, based in Ozersk, had three programs. We educated citizens about their rights, in particular those who were victims of radioactive contamination. We did sociological research on the inhabitants. And we gave training to representatives of other NGOs in the Ozersk region.
We brought some sixty cases before Russian courts or administrative bodies. In most cases, they concerned proving that the person resided in the contaminated zone. For others, it was a matter of making them aware of their right to be relocated by the state, or to obtain the correct level of compensation.
One example was the case of Akhmadeyeva, a mother and her son who lived in the village of Mouslioumovo, on the Techa river. They requested to be relocated. The child had a mental deficiency linked to the effects of radiation contamination from the river. The municipality finally recognized him as disabled, then the state gave him a housing allowance and they were able to move to Chelyabinsk.
But we also failed many times. Such was the case with a small girl who died in 2011 from liver cancer. Experts had recognized that her illness was linked to a genetic anomaly derived from her grandmother’s exposure to radiation when she worked on cleanup of the site, after the accident in 1957. But the court decided that the accident was too far in the past. The case rested on a claim for pecuniary damage, which wasn’t possible under the laws of the USSR.
We took other cases to the European Court of Human Rights. My mother, Gayeva, was one such case. As a widow of a liquidator, she had not been compensated, and despite the positive appeal decision of the court in Ozersk (a three-year legal battle), her compensation was quickly denied by the regional court in Chelyabinsk. So next she went to Strasbourg. But the delays were very long, and she died in the meantime.
Have you taken on other types of cases?

Yes, we also worked on cases that were linked to the status of the closed city of Ozersk. At that time in the USSR, Ozersk was called Chelyabinsk 65. Like all the closed cities, it couldn’t be identified, so it took the name of the closest major city, followed by a postal code. On my passport, this is still listed as my place of birth. After an eight-year legal battle, a woman succeeded in correcting this incongruity and got her place of birth recognized as Ozersk, not Chelyabinsk.
Still today, even though the Soviet Union hasn’t existed for twenty-eight years, access to the town is limited. No one can enter without official authorization, and there are many restrictions. A resident of Ozersk who went to prison wanted to return when he was released, but he was not allowed to. We helped him in his applications, and he went as far as the European Court of Human Rights. In 2011, the court decided in his favor. He was able to return to his place of origin.
The explosion in 1957 was not revealed until nineteen years later, in 1976, by the exiled biologist Jaurès Medvedev. However, you, in spite of the illnesses you saw in people close to you, didn’t become aware of the severity of the accident until much later, after the collapse of the USSR. Why was this disaster ignored for so long?

The 1957 explosion released 20 million curies (two million went up in the atmosphere, 18 million fell on the nearby environment). An area of 23,000 square kilometers was contaminated at a high level. But all of this happened at a strategically important facility which didn’t exist on any map. It was completely shut off from outside visitors. The catastrophe remained a state secret.
It was 1990 when there was the first official recognition of the accident, with a visit from Boris Yeltsin. As for myself, at that time I still couldn’t admit the truth. We were brought up with such an ideology. We were convinced that at Ozersk we worked for the security of the USSR, we were heroes. My mother, who was a doctor, cared for employees at Maiak, and she lost her husband who was a liquidator. She told me certain things, but I didn’t attach importance to them.
Declared “undesirable”

What is Maiak like today?

The facility that was built, at first to produce the Soviet nuclear bomb, functions today as a nuclear fuel reprocessing center, including for foreign clients (Bulgaria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Iraq and Ukraine, according to Greenpeace). 15,000 people live there and work in the complex. The old military reactors have been shut down.
But abnormal situations continue. The village of Mouslioumovo, one of the last to remain, was finally moved between 2005 and 2008. Most people took compensation and left, but a few chose to relocate only two kilometers from the Techa, which is highly polluted. Some inhabitants were not registered with local authorities. They were not eligible for compensation.
Today, we have no way to be certain that releases into the Techa have been stopped. The factory states that the reservoirs are secure.

A lot of people have been embittered by this history. My mother, who received no compensation as the widow of a liquidator, lost all confidence in justice. She was demented in her final days.

Yet the inhabitants of the region are not completely beat. There is presently a protest movement against Russian Copper Company which mines copper in the region and wants to be the national leader in copper extraction.
You have been in France since July, in Paris, and on October 2nd you are applying for asylum. Why did you leave Russia?

Our NGO came under increasing pressure over the years. In 2004, a law was passed to make it illegal to do sociological research in the Ozersk region, under the pretext that it threatened national security.
Starting in 2008, we were ordered to pay tax on our “profits.” We refused because we are financed by donations and we are non-profit. Next they tried to intimidate us. I was watched and harassed. But we won the game in court.
In 2012, a law enacted by the Duma put controls on NGOs that received donations from abroad. They were considered as “foreign agents.” So we organized a public meeting to explain that we are not foreign agents because in our activities we consult the local population. We work only for Russians.
But in April of this year, the authorities put us on their list of foreign agents. They accused us of two things: receiving financing from the United States, and “political activities.” This latter accusation concerns two interviews that I gave, one to an ecology magazine in which I discussed Article 42 of the constitution that grants the right to compensation when one is the victim of an environmental disaster. I criticized the way the courts were circumventing Article 42. The other interview was with the nuclear information website Bellona. I spoke of the deaths of children of liquidators and I also criticized the Russian courts.
In May, the pressure continued. The court in Ozersk ordered us to pay 900,000 rubles (4,000 euro) for not having registered with the authorities as foreign agents. All of a sudden, Rossia 24, one of the leading national media networks, broadcast an “assassin report” about us. My face was there at the top of the news, my views were misrepresented, and I was accused of industrial espionage. Journalists came and filmed my house. The question is this: how did they get the permits to enter Ozersk, which is still a closed city?
After this, my supporters encouraged me to leave Russia. Since then, I have been added to a list of persons declared “undesirable” by the Duma. This indicates that I could be imprisoned. At the end of June, a new report was broadcast on television. We decided to dissolve the NGO. On July 7, with my children I left for Paris as discretely as possible.
How do you explain the reaction by the media and the Russian authorities?

The general policy is that the United States is our enemy. We are surrounded by enemies. Whoever receives aid from enemies is an enemy also. Then there are the local interests. FSB Ozersk is not eager to have people know about the ecological catastrophe of the region. These interests merge with national interests.


Charles Digges, "Russian environmental NGO sues state TV for accusing it of espionage," Bellona.org, March 2, 2016.
See also:

Chris Harris, "Charity boss flees with young kids after Russia’s NGO crackdown," Euronews, September 9, 2015.

Daria Litvinova, "TV Witch Hunt Drives Human Rights Activist Out of Russia," Moscow Times, October 22, 2015.

Plutopia: Interview with Kate Brown on Talking Stick TV

Trans-border Activism: A Casualty of Cold War II

Daria Litvinova, "Human rights activist forced to flee Russia following TV 'witch-hunt,'" The Guardian, October 20, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/20/russia-activist-flee-nuclear-tv-witch-hunt.