Chernobyl, the Endless Cloud

by Lucile Berland, Slate.fr   April 14, 2016

A translation of:

The French Association of Thyroid Disease Sufferers (L’Association française des malades de la thyroïde, AFMT) has published a graphic novel based on the trial records of the case it brought against the French state. The storyboard tells how the government minimized the consequences of Chernobyl on the national territory, with a disregard for the health of citizens.

The battle lasted ten years. In March 2001, the AFMT, the Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity (CriiRAD), and fifty-one patients with thyroid disease filed a criminal complaint against “X” for involuntary injury (coups et blessures involontaires). They blame the state for having minimized the impact on French territory of the radioactive fallout from the explosion at the Chernobyl power plant on April 26th, 1986, and they also blame it for having taken no precautionary measures. On September 7th, 2011, the Paris Court of Appeal pronounced a “general dismissal” (un non-lieu général), which was confirmed by the Supreme Court in November 2012. Professor Pellerin, the head of the Central Agency for Protection from Ionizing Radiation (Service central de protection contre les rayonnements ionisants, SCPRI) at the time had his name definitively cleared, at the age of 87. The next year, a last recourse was rejected at the European Court of Human Rights  (ECHR).

André Couzet, an active member of the AFMT for thirteen years, asked, “After that, what was left for us? Our frustration and several dozen boxes of documents. In the court records, we found information that shows unambiguously the role played by French authorities. We thought a graphic novel would be an original way to make people understand what really happened.” He hopes also that the work will help the sufferers to “mourn” their status as victims, which was never previously recognized. “Many people find it absurd that the nation was told that the Chernobyl cloud stopped at the French border… but few people know what really came down and what effect it had on the health of French people.”

The graphic novel entitled Chernobyl, the Endless Cloud, will be officially released on April 23, 2016. It covers close to 900 files in the court record. It required the work of ten people over a year, primarily members of the AFMT organization (Chantal L’Hoir, the founder, Marc Saint Aroman and André Crozet). The work was supported by financial help from Réseau Sortir du Nucléaire and 300 donors who provided 24,000 Euros in a crowdfunding drive.

Along with the graphic novel there is a website, www.nuagesansfin.info that will provide dozens of files from the trial. This will allow readers to have access to the sources. The sixty-four pages of illustrations were based on the most striking of the files. One can discover, for example, the sales trend for Levothyrox in pharmacies since the start of the 1980s—a document from the laboratories of pharmaceutical companies that was very hard to obtain. “Sales of this drug just took off after 1986,” says judge Bertell-Geffroy, “to the point where today one French person out of eight or ten needs thyroid hormone therapy.” A few pages later, a page compares two maps of France: the “official” one distributed in the 1990s by the the authorities showing “no notable contamination,” and the other one made by citizens during the same period.
Rather than being fantastical allegations, these measurements conform with more recent assessments which constitute a sort of admission on the part of the Institut de radioprotection et de sûreté nucléaire (IRSN, formerly the SCPRI). In 2005, the IRSN published a new map showing levels of cesium 137 up to 1,000 times higher, in the same places, than was admitted twenty years earlier. Chantal L’Hoir, founder of the AFMT, says, “This file exists due to the determined efforts of judge Bertella-Geffroy.”

Marc Saint-Aman, a volunteer for the AFMT and administrator for Réseau Sortir du Nucléaire, adds, “The court record is full of documents like this.” For over a year he sorted through thousands of pages in the record to select the ones which would be put on the internet site www.nuagesansfin.info

Motive for the Crime

According to the authors, in the spring of 1986, the state committed at best mistakes, at worst, denial. Professor Pellerin declared on television, two days after the catastrophe, that it “presented no threat to public health, … except perhaps in the immediate vicinity of the power plant, and still it is especially only inside the plant where the Russians have admitted that people were injured.” A few days later, on May 6th, the Minister of Agriculture, François Guillaume, confirmed, “The French territory, because it is so far away, was totally spared from the successive fallout of radionuclides coming from the power plant in Chernobyl.”

The episode of the spinach contaminated with 2,600 Bq/kg is instructive. The prefect of Haut-Rhin, Madhi Hacène, wanted to ban the distribution of spinach. Marc Saint-Aroman, a member of AFMT, said, “Ten days later, Charles Pasqua, then Minister of the Interior, reacted by saying no change in eating habits was required. He added that there was no need to follow the recommendations that the WHO announced on May 6th, and thus products were clear for export.” Alain Madelin, then Minister of Industry, also stressed that there was no health risk from the passing clouds:

“I already had the occasion to say that we could start to worry and go to the doctor, if by chance we found—but we haven’t found—in the products shipped three tons of irradiated spinach and we had the intention to not wash them and then ingest them in the coming days.”

While countries neighboring France began dumping irradiated products (meat, milk, vegetables), France did not protect its own citizens and it continued to export, putting neighboring populations equally at risk. The book explains that on May 10th, the European Commission suspended imports of meat of cattle and pork from the USSR and neighboring countries. These were simple preventive measures that would be applied throughout Europe, except in France where only one order was given: do nothing. Even in the USSR, a civil defense colonel sounded the alarm:

“Inhabitants have absorbed in one day fifty times the amount of radiation permitted in one year for nuclear workers. At this rate, a fatal dose would be reached in four days.”

The graphic novel does historical research to uncover why France acted against the grain. Marc Saint-Aroman explains ironically, “What must be understood is that in 1986 there were more than fifteen reactors still under construction in France. So this is the motive for the crime. Thirty years later, France is in second place in electricity generated by nuclear, behind the United States. France produces half of the gigawatts on the European continent.

Zone of No Rights

In spite of the evidence, the legal case went nowhere. Everyone has an explanation:

“We have to understand that under the law, one is obliged to prove a link between damage (such as thyroid cancer) and that which caused it. If the judge cannot establish a causal link that is direct and certain, it’s a case of ‘move along, nothing to see here.’”

At the office of Benoît Busson, lawyer for Réseau Sortir du nucléaire, it is understood that this type of case is difficult to deal with in the justice system. “The acts of hiding data, misinforming or underestimating are not in themselves crimes. They are better understood as political mistakes or mistakes liable to civil action. The people who had thyroid diseases could have launched a civil trial and seen better results, but first they would have had to pay for experts, which is extremely costly. Second, such trials face many delays and take up to ten years to take account of all the evidence.

The judge (juge d’instruction) Bertella-Geffroy knew all these constraints. Aware that it would be extremely difficult to establish a causal link between the passage of the cloud and the rise in thyroid pathologies, she bet on a charge of “aggravated deception” more than “injury.” Yet after multiple warrants sent to the Ministry of Health, the Interior, and Agriculture, and to the national weather agency, all the confidential documents gathered were not sufficient to establish a solid case. The precautionary principle was obvious by its absence in the case. She declares regretfully, “Health has no value in the economy.” And, actually, neither does justice have a value in the economy. The judge was abruptly taken off the case fifteen days before the closed-door session which led finally to a dismissal.

For Michèle Rivasi, Green Party representative in the European Parliament since 2009, the influence of the nuclear lobby is still very powerful today. The “lies of state” post-Chernobyl, denounced by the AFMT, could be told again if a nuclear catastrophe happened in France. She says regretfully, “Still today in the nuclear industry decisions are not made in the ministries or by commissions, but directly at the executive level. Nuclear is a domain unto itself, undemocratic, a sort of zone where there are no rights.**

The title Chernobyl, the Endless Cloud designates a fog that still lingers over this entire affair, thirty years later. It also refers to the millennial time span of the radiation that escaped from the nuclear power plant on April 26th, 1986.

Translator’s Notes

In France a juge d’instruction is responsible for conducting the investigative hearing that precedes a criminal trial. In order for the judge to recommend a criminal trial, he or she must find not just probable cause (as in an American grand jury trial) but sufficient evidence of guilt to warrant a criminal trial.
Ms. Rivasi’s comments apply equally well to any nation that possesses nuclear weapons or power plants.

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