A Glimmer of Hope for French Nuclear Veterans

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

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

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

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

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


Looking under the hood of France's energy transition

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

My translation follows…

Le Monde 2014/10/14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are speaking here specifically about EDF and its influence…

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what would these be, considering the budgetary constraints?

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

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

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


Rolling Stewardship for a Tortoise?

Imagine, if you will, a tortoise. You are a forty-year-old parent and your ten-year-old daughter brings home a baby tortoise that she wants to keep as a pet. You permit her to keep it, and the creature quickly becomes a most cherished member of the family. After some time goes by, you realize that this is no ordinary turtle. It’s one of the famous Galapagos tortoises that live for 170 years. Suddenly your daughter is very distraught that no one alive in the family now will be around to take care of the tortoise in the last half of her life. Not only is it a little stressful for your daughter to contemplate her own mortality at this young age, but it’s unusual that the whole family has been forced to consider its obligation to care for a living thing into the distant future.
Image by Catriona MacCallum via Wikimedia Commons
In order to put your daughter’s mind at ease, you promise that you are going to make sure that someone will always be there to care for the beloved tortoise. You come up with the concept of rolling stewardship, the ongoing care of a responsibility across generations. Instructions will be written down, grandchildren will be taught, the tortoise will be honored like a sacred creature in family tradition. But still it is not so simple because you realize that when it comes down to it, no one knows what is going to happen. It is impossible to give a 100% guarantee that the tortoise will be protected long after you and your living kin are gone from this earth.
Obviously, I’m using this story as a way to relate the problem of nuclear waste to something mundane that can be grasped as a matter of simple common sense. The tortoise management problem makes it clear that we have no control over what will happen after our death, and that goes without saying how little control we have over our destinies while we are alive. We have no financial incentive to say, “Yes, absolutely, we can guarantee that the tortoise will be cared for. Our tortoise protection culture is infallible.” To say such a thing would be laughable. Yet when a nuclear “safety” bureaucracy utters such inane promises about its ability to control the distant future, the public is expected to accept them as reasonable, and quite often it does.
The problem of the tortoise does not involve a high consequence risk. If she dies an untimely death in her second century, that’s a tragedy for her and the family that loved her, but not for an entire ecosystem. In contrast, when it comes to nuclear waste, we need the 100% guarantee, but it is, of course, impossible. If someone tells you that a plan to bury nuclear waste is safe, just remember this one self-evident truth that can be perceived by anyone with a normally functioning brain: no one knows what is going to happen.
Native American myth called North America Turtle Island
Unfortunately, institutions are like organisms that care only about their own survival. They are programmed to perpetuate their own existence. When simple logic and facts get in the way, they adopt the four-D strategy: divert, deflect, deny and deceive, and that last item on the list includes heavy doses of self-deception as well. This should not be surprising. We should get over being outraged. We should not expect the nuclear industry (which includes its supposed safety regulators) to suddenly understand it has to do the right thing and fold up its operations. We should realize that these organizations are going to do what they do until they are stopped by an opposing force.
If we put aside concerns about accidents and costs, we can see that the unsolvable problem of nuclear waste disposal is enough reason to put an end to nuclear power. Who would continue to use a toilet that doesn’t flush? The public has given its assent to nuclear power and nuclear weapons because it has been told that nuclear waste burial is the solution and it will be achieved soon, always sometime soon. This promise works because it makes intuitive sense that this should be the solution. Throughout human evolution burial has sufficed as a way to deal with unwanted substances. Out of sight was out of mind. The earth could deal with whatever we threw in it because our waste was, until the Industrial Revolution, always organic.
The nuclear industry now seems to be getting nervous that the public is waking up to the fact that the burial solution just doesn’t exist. Projects like the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada have failed partly because of NIMBY political objections, but more importantly because of legitimate technical conclusions that the long-term stability of the waste containers and the geological features of the site could not be guaranteed. When confused, repeat the mantra: no one knows what is going to happen.
But why should you take it from me? Listen to what these highly qualified scientists have to say about the subject:

1. Jean-Pierre Petit, former director of France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique in an interview broadcast on La Voix de la Russie (my translation) speaking about French plans to bury nuclear waste in Bure, France:

… the storage of wastes with long half-lives poses acute problems. In general, there are two sorts of wastes. There are those that can be called “passive,” like asbestos, and those that can be called “active” that evolve chemically, decompose, and eventually produce flammable gas, and heat. Nuclear wastes obviously belong in the second “active” category. They release heat by their  exo-energetic transmutation. So storage sites require powerful ventilation systems that need to be maintained for centuries. Some wastes that are plastic decompose relatively quickly, releasing hydrogen. When the air reaches 4% hydrogen, it becomes explosive.
In the year 2000, they began to store various types of waste, one of which was mercury, underground at a mine in Alsace. In 2002, a fire broke out. They wanted to get everything out, but they realized it could never be recovered… A fire in a mine is more complicated to manage than a fire above ground. It’s like an oven. The heat has no way out. A small fire can quickly result in elevated temperatures at which the containers begin to melt.
In Bure, a fire would be catastrophic. The wastes are vitrified (in a glass-like state), but glass is not really a solid. It’s a very viscous fluid. At ordinary temperatures, it can do the job for thousands of years. It is not soluble. But the weak point of glass is its low resistance to heat. At 600°C, the glass will flow and liberate its contents. Underground, this temperature could be reached very quickly. In the mine there are also support structures made of metal and reinforced concrete.  Concrete melts above 1100°. The clay in Bure is also saturated with water. It couldn’t withstand being heated above 70°. The creators of the CIGEO project have great faith in a material called bentonite with which they hope to seal the caverns. It’s a particular type of clay that can absorb water and dilate, but it has the same problem as clay in terms of heat resistance.
Fire hazards come not only from the concern about hydrogen explosions. The plan at Bure is to deposit some elements treated with bitumen, but bitumen becomes fluid at 60° and flammable at 300°. Any way you look at it, this project is absurd.
The only thing to do now is to leave everything on the surface, even for centuries if necessary, as a way to make them less toxic by transmutation. There is no hurry. But the government and the barons of nuclear are exerting an enormous pressure to begin burial by 2015. They want to hide all signs of the nuisance that has accumulated for half a century and given nuclear energy such a bad image. If the CIGEO project is realized, this will be a precedent for nucelopaths the world over, and they will all follow suit, saying, “après moi, le déluge!”

(A more complete translation of this interview is here).

2. A similarly persuasive argument was made by Chris Busby in his study of Swedish plans for the burial of nuclear waste. The Wikispooks article on Busby’s career summed up the problem this way:

… Busby calculated that the sealed canisters would explode due to helium released by the decay of alpha emitters within the 100,000 year period required by the Swedish environmental court and indeed probably within 1000 years. This matter is still unresolved. He pointed out that the release of the waste would make the Baltic area uninhabitable since it equated to several thousand Chernobyl accidents worth of radioactivity.”

(More on this topic in this video interview and in Busby’s published report on Forsmark).

   The makers of these nuke waste disposal dreams could always say that these criticisms were merely speculation, but then American plans for burial came to a grinding halt in February 2014 when the WIPP facility in New Mexico experienced an explosion that has shut it down indefinitely. At a recent public hearing in Ontario for plans to create an underground suppository there, Canadian regulators were heard to say that the failure at WIPP occurred because there was a “degraded safety culture.” In a report in local media on the hearings, a critic of the proposal said, “WIPP was once said to be ‘state of the art’ and comparable to the OPG DGR [Ontario Power Generation Deep Geologic Repository], but since the incident, OPG has ‘thrown WIPP under the bus.’”
The Canadian nuclear industry’s response was a bizarre defense because the high likelihood of a degraded safety culture over time is precisely the reason people oppose nuclear energy. The Canadian regulators’ hubris is almost more troubling than the actual disaster at WIPP. Assuming they do have such a great safety culture in the present moment, there is no guarantee it will stay this way 20, 100 or 10,000 years into the future. All it would take is a government keen on budget cuts and hostile to unbiased scientific research, but hey, that would never happen, would it? When in doubt, just repeat: no one knows what is going to happen.

Every time we build and operate a nuclear reactor, we do so with the implicit assumption that we shall forever be able to contain the radioactive poisons we create in the reactor. In doing so, we presume that we can predict the future for centuries and millennia to come, that we can isolate and protect nuclear reactors and nuclear waste from every single catastrophe that nature and man can inflict, including earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, asteroids, human error, terrorism and war. History has already shown us that such assumptions are indeed both foolish and futile.

Physicians for Social Responsibility, April, 2011, p. 11.