Nuclear Primacy: What does the hawk say?

It is revealing to note that during the present 2016 US presidential campaign, none of the candidates have been asked much about what they believe the nation’s nuclear doctrine should be. It’s the trillion-dollar question that has been kept out of popular discourse. The candidates have not been asked such questions as whether “nuclear sharing” among NATO allies violates the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), or whether America is obliged under the treaty to treat the abolition of the nuclear arsenal as an urgent matter. Do they agree with the previous administration’s decision to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and pursue a doctrine of nuclear primacy toward Russia and China? [1] The average reader of this blog is probably more familiar with these issues, but the candidates would likely be at a loss as to how to answer these questions. Either they couldn’t answer or they wouldn’t want to.
Public anxiety about nuclear war has faded since the 1990s. Back then there were some reasons to relax. The arsenals of the superpowers decreased from 60,000 to 14,000 warheads, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty led to the elimination of short-range missiles and tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and Western Russia. During the late Gorbachev and early Yeltsin years, there was enough trust in the bilateral relationship for Americans and Russians to feel like they would get along as normally as any other pair of countries. Russia was too weak and troubled to be considered much of a threat.
All of this started to change in the late 1990s when Russia and the US took up different sides in the Serbia-Kosovo conflict, NATO expanded eastward, and America meddled in the internal affairs of what is referred to as “the former Soviet space.” In this century, since Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia has been steadily demonized and restored to its status as most favored threat to American hegemony.
During the Bush presidency, while everyone was distracted by the war on terror and the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon established a new nuclear doctrine, which was actually the old dream from the 1940s of establishing nuclear primacy: the possession of superior capabilities that could, in a first strike, neutralize all of an opponent’s nuclear weapons—the winnable nuclear war. America had walked out of the ABM treaty a few years earlier and so it was also working on "missile defense" systems which, logically, have offensive purposes, as anti-missile missiles allow the possessor to neutralize a an enemy's retaliation to its own first strike.
An article in the March 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs this announced this new status of nuclear primacy and caused an uproar in both Washington and Moscow [2]. In the ten years that have passed Russia has scrambled to upgrade its capabilities and restore nuclear parity. Not coincidentally, relations between the two countries have worsened while the significance of this historic change has been largely forgotten.
Now that NATO and the US Pacific alliance (with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines and others) are carrying out provocations against Russia and China, the issue is finally appearing in some circles of elite opinion in the American media, but it is still not a popular campaign issue.
If any of the presidential candidates were asked whether they were hawks, doves or owls on the question of nuclear primacy, they wouldn’t know for sure what was being asked. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would probably reflexively claim to be hawks, while Bernie Sanders would probably defer and say, “I’ll get back to you on that one.” He has devoted so little attention to foreign policy during his campaign that he has actually gone on record as saying Qatar has to do more to fight ISIS—oblivious to the well-known fact that Qatar is one of the Middle Eastern American allies that has abided and assisted ISIS as a tool for de-stabilizing Syria and ousting its head of state. Based on his view of the problem, we have to wonder if Bernie Sanders has any ideas for what to do about Turkey, NATO partner and sharer of American nuclear weapons. Turkey has facilitated ISIS in selling oil from the wells it controlled before the Russian intervention, and it is determined to undermine the Kurdish forces that have been one of the most effective anti-ISIS fighters. This issue has been widely reported, but the radical anti-war candidate in the presidential race seems to have no awareness of it, or interest in talking about it.[3]
The question about hawk, dove or owl relates the question above: Do you agree with the previous administration’s decision to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and pursue a doctrine of nuclear primacy toward Russia and China?
Hawks believe that American hegemony is benevolent, and even if that belief isn’t sincere, they say that nuclear primacy is a worthwhile pursuit. If America has the means to become the dominant force in the world, it should seize the opportunity because, in the world view of hawks, one is either the hunter or the hunted.
Doves believe the world will never see a hegemon as benevolent, regardless of the high esteem the hegemon has for itself. The world is better off being multi-polar. Nations should achieve peace through diplomacy, parity of forces, international law, and mutual regard for each other’s interests. The very act of threatening nuclear attack, which is implicit in the possession of nuclear weapons, is morally reprehensible.
Owls believe the doctrine of nuclear primacy madly risks nuclear Armageddon, by accident or design, no matter how good the odds might be that America could wipe out all of an adversary’s nuclear arsenal before being hit with even one retaliatory strike. The owls might say the doves are naïve, but they say the hawkish approach is reckless and unwise.
Even if America did not initiate nuclear war, it would still share responsibility for the outbreak of nuclear war—it must have done something to provoke a first strike—something like, let’s say, maintaining a doctrine of nuclear primacy? But what if America did strike first? Even if the possessor of nuclear primacy could prevail and wipe out all of its adversary’s nuclear capability without being hit by even one nuclear bomb (doubtful), the after-effects would be an ecological and a humanitarian catastrophe of unprecedented and unpredictable consequences, with blowback and fallout on the perpetrator that would make this the most Pyrrhic victory in history. It would be unlikely that such a nation could survive the wrath of the global community and the chaos that would follow a first strike that would have to consist of hundreds of nuclear detonations.
Obviously, nuclear primacy serves primarily as a deterrent and an instrument for establishing global hegemony. The possessor of nuclear primacy knows the hardware can never be used, but there is great value in making others wonder if it might be used, which is why no one promises the meaningless promise of no-first-use. The threats, the wielding of the club—these are the non-explosive uses of nuclear weapons that are coveted in the pursuit of nuclear primacy. And of course, there is money to be made in all of this. The trillion-dollar nuclear modernization program is going to stuff corporate profits and keep suburban real estate prices high in places like Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
Meanwhile, the second-tier adversaries China and Russia know that the possessor of nuclear primacy wouldn’t dare exercise its advantage, so they can push back with asymmetrical tactics—propaganda, diplomacy, alliance formation, economic ties, support for the superpower’s adversaries in regional wars, support for adversaries’ dissidents, and so on. The nations of the world have more urgent things to do than to get caught up in this game, but this is the distraction that nuclear weapons bring on.

Violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in word and/or in spirit

Of all the treaties concerning nuclear weapons, none is more important than the NPT. [4] It is also fatally flawed because it has allowed the nuclear powers to get away with saying that whatever is not forbidden is allowed. The wording of the treaty does not clearly require and set a timeline for disarmament, and it doesn’t specifically forbid the “sharing” of nuclear weapons and the provision of nuclear “umbrellas” to allies. Finally, it gives all signatories the right to develop nuclear energy, under the mistaken belief that the proliferation of nuclear waste can be controlled in a way that doesn’t lead to fissionable waste products being used to make weapons. Even if this level of control could be achieved, much of the global population now considers the existence of nuclear waste to be an unacceptable ecological hazard and burden on future generations. The Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima meltdowns all happened after the treaty was drafted in the late 1960s.
One can only conclude from the failure of the treaty to lead to disarmament that the flaws in it are the very reason that it exists at all. If it didn’t provide loopholes to the nuclear powers, they never would have signed it. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty also has an escape clause that allows the US to resume testing if confidence is ever lost in the viability of the nuclear arsenal. [5]

Nuclear Sharing

The United States shares nuclear weapons with several countries in NATO—The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Turkey. [6] The UK and France have their own nukes. The weapons remain under American control while on NATO bases, but soldiers of the host countries are trained in how to take over bombing missions in the event of war. The NPT prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons, but since the weapons remain under American possession and control, the US claims this is not a treaty violation. The weapons would be transferred only after war has been declared, in which case the treaty would no longer be in force. This of course is absurd hair-splitting and a violation of the spirit of the treaty.
Likewise, the offer of a nuclear umbrella to allies does nothing to stop proliferation. These allies should be saying no thanks to such protection because it also turns the ally into a target. It would be much better to declare neutrality and rebuke the nuclear powers, if they are indeed sincere about eliminating nuclear weapons from the world. Nonetheless, the US claims that the sharing of nuclear weapons or a nuclear umbrella stops allies from wanting their own arsenals, so these agreements are supposedly in the spirit of the NPT. Yet these countries are already signatories of the NPT. If we are to assume that they would abrogate the treaty (only three months’ notice required) at any time in order to become nuclear powers, we have to ask if treaties are worth the paper they are written on—worth all the effort that goes into making them, and worthy of faith placed in them. If they truly are so fragile, treaties are just bare threads with which the human race sometimes manages to restrain is basest impulses.
The numerous civil society groups campaigning for nuclear disarmament may be just as ineffective. The modernization program, the nuclear primacy doctrine and the escalating tensions with Russia and China have all occurred while there has been an apparent renaissance of the anti-nuclear campaigns that went dormant in the 1990s. While their positive effects are hard to prove, they may be creating an illusion that change is on the way when things are actually getting worse.
VladimirPutin at a meeting with heads of the world’s leading news agencies on the sidelines of the 20th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF 2016) June 17, 2016. Mikhail Metzel/TASSption

The new deployment of anti-missile installations in Poland and Romania, along with NATO exercises to deter Russian aggression, have exasperated Russian president Vladimir Putin. He has recently taken to talking directly to Western journalists in various forums to counter the propaganda campaign against him and Russia, and to argue that Russia poses no threat to anyone. A recent example:

The “Iranian threat” does not exist, but the NATO Missile Defense System is being positioned in Europe. That means we were right when we said that their reasons are not genuine. They were not being open with us—always referring to the “Iranian threat” in order to justify this system. Once again they lied to us. Now the system is functioning and being loaded with missiles. As you journalists should know, these missiles are put into capsules which are used in the Tomahawk long range missile system. So these are being loaded with missiles that can penetrate territories within a 500-km range. But we know that technologies advance, and we even know in which year the US will accomplish the next missile. This missile will be able to penetrate distances up to 1,000 km and even farther. And from that moment on, they will start to directly threaten Russia’s nuclear potential. We know year by year what’s going to happen, and they know that we know. It’s only you [journalists] that they tell tall tales to, and you buy them and spread them to the citizens of your countries. You people in turn do not feel a sense of the impending danger. This is what worries me. How do you not understand that the world is being pulled in an irreversible direction while they pretend that nothing is going on? I don’t know how to get through to you anymore.” [7]

To note how extraordinary this conversation with the foreign media is, one only has to imagine President Obama doing the same thing: stating his case to a room full of journalists, business leaders and intellectuals from Russia, China and Latin America, for whom he has provided translators (imagine a US president patiently waiting for all the dialog to be translated). It never happens. Americans these days prefer to give speeches to each other on the decks of aircraft carriers. President Obama can’t speak and wouldn't speak to skeptical foreign audiences because the “Russian aggression” ruse is a baseless assertion. America’s actions this century—drone warfare, invading nations and toppling leaders without UN authority, inciting revolt in foreign countries, refusing to live up to treaty obligations and follow UN resolutions—these actions are all indefensible under international law, not to mention common sense understandings of fairness and morality in international relations.
It seems that whatever happens in the street and in civil society no longer has any effect on the decisions made by the advocates of war. They have learned to tune out whatever happens outside the gates. In early 2003, millions of people poured into the streets of the world’s capital cities to object to the coming illegal invasion of Iraq. In London, the prime minister’s residence was surrounded by 1,000,000 people angrily roaring for no war. Tony Blair was inside for hours listening to the throng, but it didn’t stop him from going along with American plans. [8]
There may be only two ways to get off the road to ruin. One would be a radical change in the policies of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the American government. To renounce nuclear primacy and begin meaningful steps toward nuclear disarmament, the American people would have to elect a majority of unbought representatives who are ready to make these goals a top priority, and the judiciary could take up the cause as a civil rights issue (the right under the constitution to live free of the threat of nuclear annihilation). There is no reason to believe that advocacy groups and street demonstrations have had any effect on those in power or on the list of issues that voters care about. Furthermore, even if nuclear abolition became the will of the majority, some rather undemocratic methods would probably be employed to neutralize it. Recent “irregularities” in US primary voting suggest that the progressive insurgency has threatened the established two-party system and led it to carry out widespread electoral fraud. [9]
With the American voter apathetic or disenfranchised by this dysfunctional voting infrastructure, there is only the second option. Outside pressure is the only way left to influence American foreign policy. Russia’s and China’s diplomatic and public relations efforts can influence global opinion, and if European leaders and other allies can start to push back and think for themselves, they may be able to derail the wildest ambitions of the American agenda. In June 2016, as NATO was preparing to carry out operations against imagined Russian aggression in the Baltic states, German defense minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, voiced a dissenting view:

What we should not do now is inflame the situation with saber-rattling and warmongering. Whoever believes that a symbolic tank parade on the alliance’s eastern border will bring security is mistaken. We are well-advised not to create pretexts to renew an old confrontation. [10]

The same week, one NATO general, Petr Pavel, also pointed at the naked emperor and broke with consensus opinion:

It is not the aim of NATO to create a military barrier against broad-scale Russian aggression because such aggression is not on the agenda and no intelligence assessment suggests such a thing. [11] [12]

These men are a small minority, and don’t expect them to be quoted much in British, Canadian or American media. Nonetheless, their comments could be a sign that a few cooler heads are daring to speak out.
Even without access to intelligence, General Pavel could see the flawed logic apparent to any observer. If it is mutually understood that America and NATO have vastly superior conventional and nuclear advantages, why would Russia invade a NATO member? Knowing the suffering of the Russian people in WWII, and knowing the problems that contemporary Russia must contend with in its own territory, why would anyone believe that it is about to launch a war of aggression? There is no plausible motive. Yet there are some obvious motives for the other side to exaggerate the threat. As in any murder investigation, one just needs to ask cui bono? NATO countries have to conjure the Russian threat in order to justify the existence of NATO. They are increasing the percentage of GDP they spend on military at the very time they are enforcing austerity on their own citizens in social spending. The most plausible ultimate cause of all this belligerence is arms manufacturers seeking an endless expansion of markets and profits. They will not stop, as Isaac Newton might say if he were alive, until they are met with an equal and opposite force.


[1] John Steinbach, “The Bush Administration, U.S. Nuclear War-Fighting Policy & the War On Iraq,Counterpunch, May 2016.

[2] Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The Rise of Nuclear Primacy,” Foreign Affairs, March 2006.

[3] Stehen Lendman, “More Evidence of Turkey’s Support of the Islamic State (ISIS), in Liaison with US and NATO,” Global Research, January 12, 2016.

[4] Arms Control Association, “The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at a Glance.”

[5] Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 342.

[6] Xanthe Hall, “Time for Nuclear Sharing to End,” Open Democracy, October 8, 2015.

[7] “Putin Warns of Nuclear War,” Fort Russ, June 22, 2016.

[9] Kim LaCapria, “Poll Position,” Snopes.com, June 15, 2016,

[12] Jerry Brown, “A Stark Nuclear Warning: Review of ‘My Journey at the Nuclear Brink’ by William Perry,” The New York Review, July 14, 2016 Issue.
If readers would like to protest that I have cited too many suspect Russian sources, this review of a book by a 60-year veteran of the American defense establishment provides similar support. William Perry has described how he, as secretary of defense, opposed the eastward expansion of NATO during the second term of the Clinton presidency, but was overruled.


The History of le nucléaire en France: an interview with the creator of A Radiant Future

An interview with Nicolas Lambert, author and performer of
A Radiant Future, a stage play about France's nuclear history

This interview, originally published in French in Avenir Radieux: Une Fission Française is published here as a “fair use” excerpt for research and public education, and as a sample for publishers who may be interested in obtaining rights for the English translation of the book discussed in the interview. This material is not for commercial use without permission of the publisher. For citation and publishing inquiries:
Nicolas Lambert, Avenir Radieux: Une Fission Française (Éditions L’Échappée, Paris, 2012)

About the book and stage play:

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

The Interview
conducted by Jean-Baptiste Bernard

How did you become interested in nuclear issues? Is this a struggle you were involved in before you began to work on A Radiant Future: A French Fission?

I was a young adult at the time of the Chernobyl catastrophe, in April 1986, and that obviously played a part in my awareness—as was my discovery of the region on Cotentin, in Basse-Normandie, an extraordinary peninsula which is home to the reactors in Flamanville and the factory called a “reprocessing center” in La Hague. I was deeply affected by seeing the combination of this fascinating natural setting and an omnipresent but almost invisible nuclear industry.

But in a certain sense, this preoccupation with nuclear hibernated for a while until I began work on what would become my project called “blue-white-red,” a theatrical triptych on the specialties of our “terroir”: oil, nuclear and arms. At the start, I wanted to work on the financing of the parties of the Fifth Republic, and particularly on the party which became a permanent majority—the Gaullist Party—the one that created a “république gaullienne” that it could uphold and manage ad vitam aeternam. 

In the beginning, I wanted to understand how the Gaullist Party and the Gaullist République functioned, how the latter assured the financing of the former. Little by little, working on this question, I realized that three subjects were always there: oil, nuclear and arms. Thus the idea became apparent: each of these subjects should be treated separately in different plays. Naively, without understanding how much work was involved, I thought I would finish this vast project in three years. I just told myself “I’ll work on Elf for six months, then I’ll perform it for six more; I’ll work on nuclear for six months, then perform it for six months; etc.” At the same time, I had to earn a living by other means, which meant taking minor roles in cinema. During most of the time I was working on Elf, the Pump of Africa, that’s how I functioned. Small jobs helped me hold it all together, and then I realized I was earning a modest living by the play itself.

You began working on Elf, the Pump of Africa, in 2003, at the height of Chirac’s time of triumph…

In my mind, I saw the play as an anti-Chirac war machine, anti-RPR. I felt an urgency, a responsibility—to make a blockade. But the motivation came from farther back at the beginning of the millennium, in the formulation of an alternative to globalization. It also came from the awareness of the many ways labor laws were under attack. I could see that behind these moves a new reality was being planned. I said to my friends in the struggle, “They’re coming after our job security. We have to take up arms and engage our adversary.”
I believe that these affronts say a lot about the state of our society, especially since as a reaction, workers launched a lot of great initiatives. There was a real shake-up, with a lot of interesting projects happening. I remember especially one guy who dramatized a recalculation of all subsidies and expenses: he showed what they really were with graphics and charts. I thought, “Great. We are going to do everything.” It was clear we were on the attack.

With the majority party as a target…

In 2003, I had started to follow all the trials that the RPR [Rassemblement Pour la République, a neo-Gaullist party formed in 1976] was involved in. Whether it was the Elf trial, the trial about non-existent jobs (where Juppe was, in the absence of Chirac, at least condemned for having deceived the sovereign French people while entrusted with carrying out a “democratic public mandate.”). But little by little, as I studied these trials, I understood the subject was much more complex than I had realized. It became apparent how everything was connected: one had to be interested in arms to understand how the press functioned, in civilian nuclear to understand military nuclear, and French Africa [Françeafrique] to know how the majority party was financed, and so on. So I widened my field of inquiry, always wanting to be really aggressive in my desire to confront the way this République functions.

There is something a little quixotic in your work, like you’re a solitary man tilting at windmills… Is this why you work solo?

Not at all! I work solo because it costs a lot less, because I’m not subsidized. Working solo annoys me a little. Elsewhere, in radio and in theater, I worked for a long time collectively. I always worked with my close friends: Sylvie Gravagna, Michel Cochet, everyone in the Cabarets de Charlie Noé. [1].

But a word about this “being alone on the stage.” It wasn’t really a choice as much as a necessity. I had no way to do it otherwise. Putting on a piece of theater requires money. You have to pay the actors, the technicians. It’s an actual business enterprise. When I created Elf, the Pump of Africa, I didn’t have a cent. And this type of subject doesn’t captivate the people who subsidize the arts.

The simplest solution was to do everything myself. I told myself, “Let’s see if I can get by with a shoestring budget and manage everything myself.” That meant tackling the subject, research, direction, promotion, sales, lighting, stage management etc.

It took a while. During the first twenty or thirty showings of Elf, the Pump of Africa, I did absolutely everything. I felt I was going crazy. I played all the characters, but I also organized the touring, the sales, and the technical aspects of the show. For the lighting, for example, I had installed a small system behind the curtains upstage, and I controlled them each time I exited for a few seconds. It was unmanageable. I decided I really needed someone to handle the technical and administrative stuff. Someone else just had to do it. Then I was fortunate to meet Erwan Temple, who became my collaborator. This allowed me to concentrate on playing the roles and improve my performance.

On the stage, it really gelled. I was able to really bring to life, on my own, all these diverse characters. And for the first time in my life I had a show that didn’t cost anything to put on. My companion, Hélène Billard,[2] took charge of the music playing cello, and that was it. It took off. I performed the show once, twice, ten, thirty times… eventually we reached 400 performances.

Now, with A Radiant Future: A French Fission, I no longer feel “alone on the stage” because I asked a splendid musician, the bassist Eric Chalan to work with me. He or Hélène Billard accompanies me behind the big screen on the set. On this big screen we project the video images and lighting produced by Erwan Temple. The characters were developed under the precious guidance of Nathalie Brücher. For someone supposedly working alone on the stage, it’s starting to get crowded, isn’t it?

But still, you are playing all the characters. This makes us think of the master of the genre: Philippe Caubère.

I discovered his work at that time. I didn’t know it before. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I’m not very well-cultured in the theater. Going to the theater costs a lot of money, and I don’t make much. Before I became an adult, I went to the theater only once during a school trip. Furthermore, shows are performed at night, and when I’m working I don’t have time to see the work of others.

But because I was told that I’m doing something similar to the work of Philippe Caubère, that I was using a “grammar of performance” similar to his, I finally went to see one of his shows. It is true that he is fascinating. What a great actor! And what a great use of space. The man is a dancer.

You may not be a dancer, but you manage a vast undertaking of documentation before writing your plays. How do you proceed?

My basic dogma is very simple: I go find the information and I report it to the audience. Theater consists of just taking the public by the hand and not browbeating them. I have an ambition to speak to everyone, a desire which our institutions lack. I always wanted to perform elsewhere, outside of theaters, in order to not always be facing the same, often stereotypical, segment of the public. So the idea is simple: since people don’t go to the theater, the theater will go to them. From 2002 to 2004, I participated with Antoine Chao, at Grenier de Lutz, de Sylvie Gravagna. It was an ensemble of spectacles and events, but also reporting and radio plays, all based on the memory of one imaginary family called Pantin as they immigrated to the suburbs of Paris. Everything was staged in schools and prefab trailers. Today, I continue to practice a form of militant theater, with the prices posted in chalk whenever various groups sponsor one of my shows.

This is how I try to reach as much of the public as possible. And above all, I don’t convey nonsense. For Elf, the Pump of Africa, I went to the Elf trials, which lasted four months, from March to July 2003, three days per week. I hardly missed a single day. In the beginning, I was thinking about making a fictional-documentary, in the form of a radio show, as part of the project Ephemeral Frequencies started by Antoine Chao.[3] Because recording devices are not allowed in court, I wanted to take notes and then turn them into a script for radio. This is when I got the idea of doing it on stage.

In your shows, do you practice a form of documentary?

Not a “form of.” I think it is a documentary! For Elf, as it is for A Radiant Future, all the dialogs are verbatim, and everyone is named. That’s the principle: I think it is essential to name the adversary, and that obliges me to be rigorous. I identify with the famous slogan: “Don’t hate the media, become the media.” All my work is driven by this desire to become media, to attempt to explain the world. I also lead an inquiry, in the journalistic sense of the word, but instead of broadcasting it on the radio or in the press, I become the means by which an intelligible documentary comes to life. The idea is to put theater where it doesn’t presently exist, and to integrate it with political reflection.

You are situated at the frontier of theater and militancy?

For me, they go together, even if the audiences often differ. I don’t feel comfortable claiming to be an artist. I see myself more as an artisan who refines content and form.

When I began doing Elf, the Pump of Africa, many theater people told me that this wasn’t theater. According to them, it was more documentary. I had to wait until the 200th performance for a member of the establishment to allow me to perform in her theater. The possibilities of this genre then multiplied, and the same persons who had denied that I was a man of the theater started to speak with interest about my work.

So there is a divide between what you do and “proper” theater?

As a spectator, I go to theater that I feel passionate about, that I admire—that which helps me understand the world. It has to be interested in life and not be merely solipsistic.

But this is not how one finds the necessary support to produce a play. In France, theater is Culture—it even has a minister! And the institutional structures don’t necessarily dream about supporting artists who criticize institutions. Instead, they concern themselves with their mission of deciding what defines Culture and Art, and propagating these throughout the country. We must remember that when General de Gaulle created the Ministry of Culture, with André Malraux as the head, the curtain was being lowered on the Ministry of Colonies. The result: the functionaries of the old ministry were reassigned to the new one. And they brought with them certain quaint habits. This is why they always live with a sense of mission to bring good news to the ignorant natives. But they don’t look into themselves, and don’t pay respect to local cultures.

Frank Lepage describes very well this cultural system in Gesticulated Conferences. He really deconstructs the whole thing from the inside. He finds there is a “Qultural Machine” (insisting on the capital Q) that drives itself. He is right. This system is headed for its ruin.

But all is not dark, fortunately. Resistance is still alive. For example, I belong to a reading group called Words Discovered, created by the actor and director Michel Cochet. It has about 100 members all connected in one way or another to theater. We exchange texts that we are reading, discussing, criticizing and sometimes staging. The sole purpose is to help new authors discover what they have to say.

I want to stress that we sometimes receive some impressive political texts. There have been even more in the last four or five years (unfortunately, the cultural system doesn’t necessarily give much funding to these texts). This makes me believe that things are starting to shift.

It takes time, a bit like it does to prepare a show…

It’s always a long process. It comes down to the work of documentation: as I get into a subject step by step, an entire network of people, resources and relationships becomes apparent. The general outline becomes progressively clear until I finally begin to understand what is at stake. It takes patience. I started working on nuclear as soon as the preparatory work on Elf, the Pump of Africa was done—that is, after 2004. For seven years I systematically collected documents, articles and books on the subject.

And you also went out to make contacts with…

Theater is a physical experience, which raises an essential question: how can one put flesh and bones on concepts and subjects that are so austere? How can they be incarnated?

To do this, I had to feed myself with encounters and information. In short, I had to give it life. For example, I went to thirteen public debates[4] concerned with the construction of an EPR reactor in Penly. I also attended numerous antinuclear meetings—and to be frank they were sometimes really boring. I watched every documentary I could get my hands on. I even met with public relations officers for Areva and EDF [Electricité de France] to pose very naïve questions. That’s one way to understand how things work. Finally, I interviewed people from the IRSN (Institut de radioprotection et de sûreté nucléaire) and the ASN (l’Autorité de sûreté nucléaire) and I visited the nuclear power plant at Penly.

And it was because of what you saw at the public debates that you decided to focus on the fate of the subcontracted workers?

At the first of the thirteen public debates in Dieppe something happened that the organizers had not expected. It was the raising of a question about these workers. They are not EDF employees, but they work for EDF all the same. They are employees of a subcontractor, which might also be subcontracted by another subcontractor, and so on up the chain. At this debate, a few of these guys protested: “It’s a scandal. You say nothing about us!” They said it in a way that was very raw and touching, but almost inaudible. They aren’t accustomed to speaking out, and they speak in very technical terms. I didn’t understand much, but their emotion struck me. There was something about seeing these subcontractors show up here, expressing themselves very awkwardly in front of these public relations professionals. This made me very interested in them.

So this subject is in the play as the reading of a letter written by Daniel Luengo. He is a subcontracted worker in the nuclear industry, and for several years he has been denouncing the working conditions that EDF imposes on thousands of his colleagues. Under crushing pressure, these people do the maintenance operations on reactors and take on the highest health risks, while EDF has no concern for them. The letter by Daniel Luengo is very moving. How could it not be? My job as an actor is just to let his words be heard.

You also incarnate the subject by showing us a gallery of portraits—that of Pierre Guillaumat, for example, was particularly effective.

It’s not always easy. The text for this character, one of the key figures in the nuclear story, didn’t come together until the last moment. It was only after grinding through every sense of the material in the play that I realized that I should perhaps use the interview that I had read in Damocles [5], a defense journal. Then it struck me to what extent he had played a pivotal role in everything that concerns oil, nuclear and arms.

So Pierre Guillaumat is the human element that links the three subjects that I work on. In Elf, the Pump of Africa, he is mentioned only twice, even though he created Elf and managed the oil company from 1962 to 1977 and never ceased his efforts to preserve the colonial French empire for the sake of oil. In A Radiant Future, he appears as a key figure: he was the general administrator of the CEA (Commissariat à l’énergie atomique française) from 1951 to 1958, and he supervised the French atomic bomb project. And, in my future play on arms, he is there again. He was Minister of the Army from 1958 to 1960 in the midst of the Algerian war.

Presenting these figures isn’t enough. You also have to bring them to life on the stage, give them a physical presence.

Actually, it really takes some time. In A Radiant Future: A French Fission, there are twenty-three characters, and I had to spend a few days on each one. And on the stage, there has to be a smooth transition from one to the other. It’s not always the case, but sometimes I have to re-invent them.

In truth, I’m not really alone when I play these characters. I realized I have a partner: the public. That’s because it takes several performances for me to really get a grip on the play, even if I have mastered its technical aspects.

Once on the stage, the trick is to let go. It’s not me leading the vessel. It escapes me. My task is to work on technique and make myself available as a vector for the play. That can be tricky. For example, the physical difference between two characters that I play, Joseph Dupuis, director of the EPR at Penly, and Didier Houi, the moderator of the public debate, wasn’t apparent to me. These are men cut from the same cloth, from the same milieu, and they don’t have very interesting voices. So I had to find some way to differentiate them.

After a while, I put my finger on it. It was a kind of discomfort. Didier Houi always seemed to be bothered when he spoke. This was because he had his ass between two stools: he believed in his democratic mission, but he also knew that his role was a sham. He admitted it elsewhere off record. The decision to construct the new reactor had already been made at the Élysée [executive branch]. But he continued with the charade anyway.

He belongs to that class of professional speakers that you mentioned earlier?

Didier Houi was rather like a dinner host. He manages the Arpe (Agence régionale pour l’environnement) in Midi-Pyrenees, so he is not necessarily pro-nuclear. The debate commission is not stupid. By using someone neutral they can neutralize a lot of criticism. They can say, “See! It’s not all decided in advance.” Except there are machinations in the background all directed by EDF. It’s EDF that finances the public debate and sets its parameters.

I really became aware of this at one of the thirteen debates. I was sitting in the amphitheater, just behind one of the EDF people playing a key role in design of the debate over Penly. He was leading the ensemble as a producer with his fingers on the purse strings.[6] While a man was explaining to the crowd, in plain language, what an EPR reactor was, I started to get interested in a little binder the EDF man was holding. I could see what he had written there. I could see that the statements made to the public had been planned with extreme precision. It wasn’t a general outline. Everything had been planned almost down to the last word. The script even included language errors and false starts like, “Yes, well, um, you’re going to tell me…”

This is what I mean by professional speakers. Their text is ready, and the interpretation has been thoroughly worked over. They’ve already repeated this public debate. It too is like a piece of theater, except they don’t present themselves as actors. And they have in front of them people who are tired, coming after a day of work, using their free time to inform themselves or struggle. The imbalance is striking.

And do the inhabitants of the region come out in big numbers?

In Dieppe, there are already six reactors in the area, in Penly and Paluel. And the commission is supposed to ask them if they want one more? But they sort of don’t give a damn, right? At the discussions I heard people say often, “Six reactors or seven. What’s the difference?”

In any case, not much was done to make people turn out. To advertise the debates, there was an announcement in the local paper, one poster among a dozen on the notice board outside the community center. Me, I wouldn’t risk advertising for a performance this way. I would want to be as obtrusive as possible. A debate of this importance should at least be broadcast on a public service channel.

This reminds me of one meeting when the subject of potassium iodide pills came up. Afterwards, a man came up to me and said, “I’m the mayor of town X, a little village a few miles from the reactor. You said something there about potassium iodide pills. What are they?” This village mayor, living just over ten kilometers from a nuclear power plant, had never heard of this way of defending oneself against thyroid damage during a nuclear catastrophe. That’s because in France only persons living less than ten kilometers from a reactor need to be given potassium iodide pills. Yet the WHO (World Health Organization) says this distance should be 500 kilometers. This enormous difference is quite revealing.

Of a collective indifference?

For sure! When I started in the years 2000-2010, to speak to my friends about my interest in staging a play about nuclear, they said to me, “Why do you want to bother with that? It’s a lost cause. And anyway, nothing has happened.” They reproached me for being out of step with the times.

The Fukushima catastrophe happened the very month when I was doing a first run of A Radiant Future. All of a sudden I was doubly out of step with the times because I was speaking about nuclear without mentioning Fukushima. It wasn’t the topic of my play anyhow, but I finally added a bit by using the statement Sarkozy made after the catastrophe. He explained that those who predicted the demise of nuclear were asking for nothing but a return to the Middle Ages.

The catastrophe certainly provoked a certain interest in the atomic energy question. Five months after Fukushima, the sociologist Francis Chateauraynaud published a study showing that between March and July 2011 more words had been printed on nuclear energy than in the entire preceding decade.[7] But to be frank, I believe that this opening has already closed again. Now, at the beginning of 2012, the catastrophe is already off the radar. Until the next one?

There will at least be your work that broaches the subject. Was it hard to immerse yourself in the arcane knowledge of things atomic?

I had a lot of trouble understanding how nuclear energy works. I realized I knew absolutely nothing about science, and high school courses were a distant memory. So it took me a long time to relearn things until I got the general principle. And this is what I concluded: Nuclear energy is amazing! To succeed in using the energy that constitutes the atom in order to permit people to boil water. It’s pure genius! If, of course, we don’t consider the dangers. Bernard Laponche, who worked in reactor physics at the CEA before becoming a figure in the anti-nuclear struggle, often said that nuclear was the most dangerous method of boiling water. Once you realize that, you have to ask yourself, “Is it really necessary to boil that much water? Do we have to spend so much on stupid electric radiators?”

What do you think?

To know whether nuclear is useful to the economy, you can consider this fact: Japan operated 54 nuclear reactors until March 2011 [6] but they have all been shut down since that time.[8] The Japanese economy still carries on well enough. As for Germany, which lowered its electricity consumption by 30% over ten years, it doesn’t give the impression of being a low-performing European country. If that’s a return the Middle Ages, there are worse fates. And I haven’t even mentioned the twelve members of the European Union who don’t use nuclear at all. Related to this, it’s worth remembering that in spite of a large number of reactors (150) nuclear supplies only 15% of European electricity needs. If we can do without it, why don’t we try? The French Court of Audit (La cour des comptes) which is hardly made up of anti-growth zealots, came to the same conclusions. In January 2012,[9] it published a report showing it would be as expensive to shut down nuclear energy as to continue it. It even states that the choice between the two is a political choice.

I think we should immediately stop the French nuclear complex, and by doing so we would avoid great troubles. When you look at a map of Chernobyl fallout and compare it with the size of France, you realize the dimensions are about the same. If you could guarantee me that an accident won’t happen, I’d take the risk, but everything changes when the statistics show that a major catastrophe happens once a decade. Bernard Laponche and Benjamin Dessus, president of Global Change, explained it in June 2011 in an article published in Libération, concluding, “Rather than continuing to calculate surrealistic probabilities of events occurring, events which we can’t even imagine—as was the case with Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima—isn’t it time to take account of the reality and draw lessons from it. The reality is that the risk of a major accident in Europe is not so low. It is actually a statistical certainty.” Couldn’t we from now on avoid this major problem by ceasing to use that which produces consequences beyond our control?

We always prefer to believe that the worst will not happen. And we prefer to hypnotize ourselves by what we say among each other because we don’t want to tell ourselves, for example, that the nuclear power plant at Nogent is 80 kilometers from Paris and we couldn’t evacuate the region in the event of a serious problem. Everyone tries to accommodate himself to this reality.

Were you trying to prove something with A Radiant Future?

Frankly, I was thinking of doing more on the relations between politics and the industry, but in the end I didn’t do it. I didn’t talk at all about how the political parties are financed, as I did in Elf, the Pump of Africa. I didn’t touch on Bouygues, either, the company that builds nuclear power plants and manipulates public opinion with TF1 [a national television network]. After all, I regret that I covered only a few topics in the play. But how else could I do it?

At one point, I set a limit of a certain number of words: there are 13,000 and that corresponds to two hours on the stage. That indicates that there is enough for three main themes to be covered in A Radiant Future, such as the link between the terrorist attacks of February and March 1986 in Paris and Iran’s nuclear project, which involved Eurodif [the French uranium enrichment plant]. It’s something that’s not very well known. At the end of the play, I enumerate the attacks committed as a litany that sounds a bit like a chant.

I use this device twice during the play. The first time is when I list all the French reactors, which are supposedly the product of our energy independence and technological inventiveness. Yet in fact they were all built under license from Westinghouse—a reality that is almost never mentioned, so I settle for listing the reactors one by one. The second litany comes back to the link between France and Iran during this time of the attacks, attributed at the time to “dangerous islamists.” This list of the dead and wounded is, by the end, very hard to listen to. At the conclusion of it, the voice of Pierre Guillaumat returns saying, “There is no relation between civilian and military applications of nuclear technology.” It’s another way of saying “to be continued” at the end.

At the start of the play, you put the emphasis on military applications with Guillaumat, with the bomb… You stress how much the civilian and military pursuits are linked, how the former follows from the latter.

This is another thing that is hardly discussed. I noticed this particularly when I followed the members of the Mouvement de la Paix [7] who met at the UN in New York. There was even a delegation of elected officials, some of them from the PCF (parti communiste français).[10] I asked some of them what they were doing there, and they told me they were opposed to military applications of nuclear. But when I asked them about the nuclear power plants in their districts and told them about the links between civilian and military, they withdrew very abruptly, saying, “OK. That’s enough. I see what you’re trying to do.” I was even insulted by a few of them. This is because the discourse of the PCF, before Fukushima, was very simple on the subject. It was “nuclear is wonderful,” perhaps because EDF contributes so generously to the unions affiliated with the PCF. It is a subject that they are forbidden to discuss. The link between civilian and military is taboo. If you go through Areva’s financial reports carefully and look for the numbers related to their military activity, you’ll wear out your eyes with this wasted effort. But there must be a place where they built the bomb, right?

I believe we cannot comprehend our République if we do not apprehend its relationship with Africa, oil, nuclear and arms. We also cannot comprehend it if we don’t grasp why it is so rare in this country to speak ill of Bolloré, Bouygues, Lagardère, Dassault or Areva, simply because they provide jobs and industrial activity.

Theater can do this: help us understand the world we inhabit. Better still, it must.

Interview conducted by Jean-Baptiste Bernard


[1] From 1998-2003, the Charlie Noé Company, founded in 1992 by Sylvie Gravagna and Nicolas Lambert, produced 15 shows as cabarets combining contemporary authors, songs and dance. This project was revived in 2010 under the name Nouvelle Revue Vivante, appearing regularly at La Java, in Paris.

[2] Both play instruments fabricated by Yves Ducloux, a luthier cabinetmaker who lives on the slopes of Mt. Ventoux.

[3] Ephemeral Frequencies is a pirate radio station having as its goal to “convey its message to those that the media do not see.”

[4] The procedure for public debates was created by the law of February 2, 1995. It instituted an authority responsible for conducting debates, la Commission nationale du débat public. The law charged this commission with the duty to involve the public in “the elaboration of projects concerning management or equipment having an impact on the environment or on land management.” To carry out this mission, a commission for public debate is assembled for each project in question. It must hold a certain number of meetings open to all before producing a report which is purely advisory.

[5] In the dossier “CEA, a Half Century of Nuclear Power,” in the journal Damoclès, Autumn 1995.

[6] A million euros in salaries and relocations etc…

[7] See the chronicle “The Meaning of the Irreversible: Chronicles of Civilian Nuclear Technology after Fukushima.” http://socioargu.hypotheses.org/2447

[8] The last Japanese nuclear reactor was turned off in May 2012. But Japan has not given up the prospect of restarting reactors in the future.

[9] “The Costs of the Electronuclear Infrastructure.” Thematic public report, January 2012.

[10] Still active today, the Mouvement Pour La Paix [sic] is an organization founded by Frédéric Jolie-Curie in the 1950s. Translator’s note: the group is also known as Mouvement de la Paix (Peace).