This week’s post is an update on the struggle of several non-governmental groups in France to shut down the government’s plan to bury nuclear waste under the village of Bure. There have always been plenty of good reasons to object to this project, but the discovery of a geothermic energy source directly under the proposed waste depository added what, one would think, would surely be a fatal blow. However, the legal case brought by the NGOs has not been proceeding well. This post puts the most recent news first, then republishes some previous posts on the topic in reverse chronological order.
À Bure, les antinucléaires se battent toujours, L’Essentiel (Luxembourg), 2015/05/20
Antinuclear groups fighting against the nuclear waste burial project in Bure have filed an appeal after having lost a case against ANDRA (Agence Nationale Pour La Gestion des Déchets Radioactifs).
The case brought by the antinuclear groups was dismissed at the end of March. Their lawyer said they had accused ANDRA of “lies… concerning the controversial project to store highly toxic nuclear waste in the Meuse region.” She announced on Wednesday that they have filed an appeal. Sortir du Nucléaire, and five other local organizations had accused ANDRA of “wrongful act” (faute in French legal terminology), but on March 26, 2015, the High Court in Nanterrre judged that these groups did not have a stake in the issue, thus they had no right to this legal action.
The lawyer, Etienne Ambroselli, said, “This decision is not what we expected. We have registered our appeal in the court of appeals in Versailles.”
The antinuclear groups have targeted a project that is unique in France: CIGEO is to bury, for thousands of years, the most highly radioactive waste in the country 500 meters below the small village of Bure. The groups allege that ANDRA lied in deliberately underestimating the extent of warm water aquifers under the site. This was done, allegedly, to facilitate the continuation of the project in this rural area of Haute-Marne.
However, the court in Nanterre decided that it was up to the “public authorities” to evaluate the validity of the study done by ANDRA on the geothermic potential of Bure because it was they who were responsible for the project.
Buried in impermeable argillite rock, CIGEO will be a hermetically sealed tomb. It will receive only 3% of the volume of radioactive waste that has been produced in France, but this small volume will contain 99% of the radioactivity of all these French wastes. The most toxic materials remain dangerous for more than a million years.
Final authorization is still far from being acquired. ANDRA hopes to have a green light from the government to proceed by 2020, and hopes to begin filling the site by 2025.
Unfortunately, the general public is not thinking too deeply about the proposals in all nuclear powered countries to bury nuclear waste. It seems so intuitively obvious that if you bury something it will be gone and the problem will be solved. The nucleocrats who promote these projects don’t want the public to hear the contrary voices that have raised the obvious questions about nuclear waste burial. For example, the French astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Petit had this to say in an interview in in 2014:
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 viscuous 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!”
Note that these comments made no mention of the geothermic energy source under the proposed caverns. If catastrophic fires or leaks happen sometime in the future, the toxic contents will leak down into this valuable water and energy source.
The articles below, about the antinuclear groups’ case against ANDRA, were posted earlier this year (2015):
France's Bure Nuclear Waste Site on Trial
Recently, I posted a translation from France’s other satirical/serious political journal Le Canard enchaîné regarding the inconvenience of a geothermic energy source that was discovered under the planned site of France’s underground nuclear waste storage facility (see the article below). Several citizens’ groups banded together to sue ANDRA, the government agency building the facility, and they had their hearing on January 5, 2015.
Even if they get a favorable ruling in the case, the court is powerless to order ANDRA to halt construction. The most that can be hoped for is a condemnation and increased public awareness of this serious flaw in the plans of the French state to deal with its nuclear waste problem. In normal times, nuclear issues have a hard time getting onto the radar of public discourse, and this tendency was only increased when the horrific murders happened in Paris on January 7th, pushing all other news to the margins. It is unfortunate that this recourse to the courts is the only way to bring attention to what is really a public policy problem—a political issue concerning a looming environmental catastrophe. One might think that the issue would be taken as seriously as freedom of speech, or the importance of defending values that one holds sacred. Fighting the despoiling of the land is an issue that could unify everyone in a divided nation and a divided world, but instead we argue about religion and the right to insult others.
What follows below is a statement about the hearing prepared by the plaintiffs who brought the case to court.
The French National Radioactive Waste Management Agency (ANDRA) kept lying in court: Summary of the court hearing on January 5th, 2015
Following a lawsuit by six concerned citizen groups (ASODEDRA, BureStop55, Cedra52, Habitants Vigilants de Gondrecourt-le-Château, MIRABEL - Lorraine Nature Environnement, Réseau "Sortir du nucléaire"), on January the 5th, ANDRA was called to the Superior Court of Nanterre [near Paris].
We sued ANDRA for the offense of hiding data on the geothermal resource of the Bure site for more than 15 years. This geothermal energy resource impedes the construction of a nuclear waste disposal site there, as it might lead to people of the future drilling through the wastes. Our lawyer demonstrated that ANDRA willingly failed to execute its duty to honestly inform the public. As a public agency, it is compelled to do so by law. Attorney Etienne Ambroselli said, “We want to stop ANDRA from practicing the art of misinformation. We expect the court to condemn ANDRA for not telling the truth about the difficulties it has encountered in carrying out its mission to manage nuclear wastes over the long term.
The misinformation went on during the legal procedures before the hearing. ANDRA did not produce any new arguments; the weaknesses of these had been emphasized in the citizen groups’ replications before the hearing. Stuck in this awkward position, ANDRA now has to modify its message with further misinformation. While it had declared there was no geothermal potential, it now recognizes there is. Henceforth,to elude the problem of safety, ANDRA now says it would be possible to tap the geothermal brine near the site, but this would not affect the safety of the site. Henceforth, according to ANDRA's attorney, incidentally drilling through the wastes would release only one hundredth the amount of natural radioactivity! It appears that there is nothing to worry about with these high-level long lived wastes, which raises an interesting question: why bury them if they are so inconsequential? As for the Safety Rules [Règle Fondamentale de Sûreté, RFS III.2.f, then, Guide de Sûreté 2008 of the French legislation] they would be meaningless...
When the memory of the waste dump will have faded, people of the future might wish to take advantage of the earth's thermal energy, and drilling operations might contact the wastes (this is quite possible considering the decline of fossil resources). The future generations will be the victims. It would be irresponsible for our leaders to give the go-ahead to such a project.
Without new arguments, ANDRA's attorney could not justify the malfeasance and unacceptable malfunctions which happened during ANDRA’S drilling in the geothermal investigation. He only pretended that such problems (anomalous obstruction of the tool by mud, inability to conduct sufficiently long hydraulic testing, inappropriate sampling and temperature recording...) would be the "usual" problems encountered in such a task.
The judgment will be given March the 27th at 14h. We hope the court will recognize the obvious strengths of the plea brought forward by our concerned-citizens groups.
The Inconvenience of a Geothermic Energy Source Under France's Nuke Waste Dump
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 sharing photos of pages from Le Canard (a previous one translated to English is here) and today I came across the following report about a fiasco at France’s nuclear waste disposal site in Bure. 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 throughout the world so that they will be forewarned about how nuclear waste disposal projects always offer a false promise of a final solution for nuclear waste, along with pledges of jobs and economic development for the remote communities that are always exploited for these ventures.
Nuclear Waste on the Aquifer
by Professor Canardeau
translation of Des déchets (nucléaires) sur la nappe
Le Canard enchaîné
A huge pocket of warm water exists beneath what is supposed to be France’s largest nuclear garbage pit, located near the town Bure. This site is destined to store, for at least 100,000 years, the most dangerous high-level waste that has accumulated since France built its first reactor. 125 meters tall, 30 kilometers wide and dozens of kilometers long, this reserve of warm water could sooner or later be used to produce heat or energy. The water is a comfortable 66 degrees, but it is found at a depth of 1,800 meters, while the nuclear waste is to be buried above it at a depth of 500 meters.
On January 5, 2015, the agency for the management of radioactive waste (ANDRA) will find itself on trial in high court in Nanterre for having divulged false information concerning the supposed absence of concern about significant underground water tables at the site in Bure. The citizen groups Sortir du nucléaire and Stop Bure 55, and Mirabel Lorraine Nature Environnement have brought the charges.
Some background: The fundamental rules related to deep geological disposal of nuclear waste, established in 1991 and still in force, clearly state that sites should not involve significant concerns about geothermal sources or build-up of heat. But in 2002, the geophysicist André Mourot (now deceased) was going through the archives at the Bureau of Geological and Mining Research in Nancy, Reims, and he discovered the existence of this aquifer, and he realized its significance as a source of energy. The geologist Antoine Godinot remembers that André Mourot wrote a report and distributed it to all interested groups. Next, they demanded that ANDRA conduct testing to learn fully about the aquifer.
ANDRA made no response until 2008. “What a disaster, this drilling and testing,” laughed the nuclear physicist Monique Sené. “The probe got stuck. They couldn’t even reach the aquifer.”
This fiasco didn’t stop ANDRA from declaring in 2009 that the geothermic source is negligible. Since then it has stuck to this position. To the malcontents it accuses of spreading this information about a geothermic potential, it responds, “The studies done by ANDRA concern whether there is an exceptional geothermic resource.” For ANDRA, as far as Bure is concerned, there is “no geothermic resource of exceptional interest.” Everything hinges on what is understood by “exceptional.”
Tada! At the end of 2013, at the request of the local information committee tracking the Bure laboratory (composed of representatives of the State, local collectives, and civil society groups), a Swiss group called Geowatt, specializing in geothermic energy resources, produced a report that stated, “We are of the opinion that the geothermic resources of the Bure region could at present be developed at an economical cost with the use of appropriate technology.” The nail in the coffin was the additional comment stating, “The burial of nuclear waste prevents access to the geothermic resource.”
The physicist Bernard Laponche points out, “If we build this project at this site, we are going to impose enormous risks on future generations, and for sure one day people will want to exploit this geothermic energy, but they will stumble upon the nuclear waste that is blocking access to it. ”
Perhaps ANDRA will be able to leave their contact information for future generations to get in touch.
translation of Des déchets (nucléaires) sur la nappe
Le Canard enchaîné
Japan’s senior citizens are the silver lining in the dark cloud cast by the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe. It’s the same in other countries, too, where it has become a truism that only pensioners can afford to raise their voices against entrenched bureaucracies that are sending civilization hurtling toward a cliff. There has been a conspicuous majority of seniors at the anti-nuclear rallies in Japan, and strangely many of the living former prime ministers have converted to the anti-nuclear cause. Why do they never see the light while they are holding power?
There must be some members of the present government who wish they could reclassify all pensioners as state employees and thus subject them to the state secrets law. They could be forced to make a confessional “self-evaluation” every few years in order to re-qualify for funding, and that way they would fall into line just like journalists, academics and everyone else of working age who has been intimidated into hiding personal opinions for fear of seeming too “dangerous” to remain employable.
I probably shouldn’t give such ideas to the prime minister and his cabinet. It’s dangerous to feed them ideas that they might not recognize as sarcasm. At least for now, the senior citizens are free to say what they want. One fine example is the recollection of a former high-ranking police officer published by Nippon.com in April 2015.
In an article entitled “Japan’s Disastrous ‘Safety Myth’: Ignoring the Lessons of Minor Nuclear Incidents,” Sassa Atsuyuki related the tale of the 1974 reactor accident on the maiden voyage of Japan’s experimental nuclear cargo ship, the Mutsu. It is definitely one of the lesser-known fiascoes on Japan’s long list of nuclear mishaps, but it is worth relating for what it reveals about the early signs of trouble in Japan’s nuclear establishment.
There is very little information in English about the Mutsu incident on the Internet. One technical, factual review can be found here, but it leaves out the foibles and the “human angle” of the story—the very elements of it that reveal what an ill-advised venture the nuclear scheme was right from the beginning.
Mr. Sassa covers some familiar aspects of the Fukushima catastrophe and troubles with the Monju reactor, so the story of the Mutsu got somewhat buried in the middle of the article. It didn’t get much attention when the article appeared, so I’ve excerpted it here so it stands alone.
Although Mr. Sassa’s recounting is quite critical of the way the incident was handled, he implies that the fishermen’s claims were emotional and not founded on scientific evidence. It may be true that normal operations would not have harmed the fishery, but the locals were right to be worried about accidents and the expansion of the nuclear adventure into dangerous projects like power plants and reprocessing facilities. In 1985, there was indeed a serious environmental release of radiation from a nuclear vessel near Japan’s shores—on a Soviet submarine stationed in Chazhma Bay, near Vladivostok. A similar accident in a Japanese fishing village would have done real harm and reputational harm to the residents, so their reasons for being opposed were rational.
In any case, regardless of this minor criticism, Mr. Sassa’s recollection of the events is damning enough:
Sassa Atsuyuki, April 30, 2015
First director general of the Cabinet Security Affairs Office (1986–89). Born in Tokyo in 1930. Graduated from the Faculty of Law, University of Tokyo, and joined the National Rural Police (now the National Police Agency). While at the NPA, was responsible for handling the Yasuda Hall incident and the Asama-Sansō incident. Has also worked for the Defense Agency and headed the Defense Facilities Administration Agency.
… The first time it became clear that the Japanese government and nuclear industry were not prepared to meet a crisis was in 1974 during the failed test voyage of the Mutsu nuclear ship. At the time I was security division chief at the National Police Agency, so I was able to observe all of the turmoil from behind the scenes.
Sticky Rice Farce
Locals mounted extraordinary opposition when the nuclear ship was to set out from its home port of Ōminato in Mutsu, Aomori Prefecture. They protested vigorously that pollution from the ship would harm rich scallop fishing grounds in the area, although there was no scientific evidence to back this claim. The lively demonstration developed a festive atmosphere, with the fishermen all drinking to the point where virtually all of the bottles of sake in the local liquor shops were sold out. Then, fortified by alcohol, the fishermen attached themselves to the Mutsu anchor with rope and lined up their boats in front of the bow of the vessel so that it could not leave port.
As a typhoon approached, the Mutsu took the opportunity to break through a gap in the blockade. Once in the open sea, testers began a controlled nuclear reaction. The Japan Nuclear Ship Development Agency, which was leading the experiment, and the Science and Technology Agency were brimming with self-confidence. However, a design flaw in the radiation shielding for the reactor resulted in a minor leak. Early failures are standard in the world of technological development, and if the testers had adopted some common-sense countermeasures, they could have dealt with the problem. In this case, all that was needed was to cover the radiation leak with lead plating. But the experimenters on the Mutsu had assumed there would be no technical problems, and they were not prepared for anything going wrong.
As the Mutsu wandered in the ocean, in want of other options, the experimenters tried to plug the leak using borates, to absorb the neutrons, mixed with sticky rice intended for the evening meal! At first they tried throwing it, as nobody wanted to approach the problem area. As might be expected, this did not work well, so low-ranking researchers were selected to block the leak by hand. It is said that they performed the ceremony of drinking farewell cups of water in case they did not survive. Considering that these were people involved in nuclear power development, it was a pathetic state of affairs.
|Reactor room of nuclear ship Mutsu|
The Telephone That Did Not Ring
Obviously the planners had shown a lack of foresight in failing to consider worst-case scenarios. But this was not the only problem. The overconfident belief that accidents were impossible also meant that the Mutsu was full of media representatives, who gave detailed accounts of the farcical events onboard, turning the affair into a completely unnecessary circus.
When the radiation leak occurred, I was in the office of Moriyama Kinji, then director general of the STA. The protests had been so fierce that the Maritime Safety Agency was unable to deal with them, and the ministers in charge had decided to dispatch Aomori Prefecture riot police and a Tōhoku chemical emergency team and to treat events as a police matter. That was why I was in Moriyama’s office representing the National Public Safety Commission.
There were around 10 telephones on his desk, including one that was red. He said to me, “Sassa, do you know what this phone is for?” “I don’t know,” I replied. “Is it to call the fire service or something like that?” “No,” he said. “This connects directly to the captain of the Mutsu. If there are any problems, the first report will come to me. And then we can think about how to handle whatever it is.” When I asked him later what happened with the direct line, he told me that it never rang. It was pathetic. The first reports of the accident came from the television news, before either the STA , the supervisory body, or the police knew anything about it.
The Mutsu was refused reentry into Ōminato port, the site of the original demonstrations. As other ports understandably followed suit, the ship continued to drift in the sea, sparking unrest among dock workers and fishermen wherever it went. As security division chief, I remember being suddenly rushed off my feet because I had to dispatch a police unit each time this happened.
It was a disgraceful situation in which all the fishing cooperatives were demanding compensation. Kanemaru Shin, chair of the LDP’s General Council, dealt with it through blatant pork-barrel politics, throwing money at the fishing industry in an attempt to silence it. But there was no end to the demands from fishery representatives; they wanted the Mutsu to be scrapped and all related port facilities, including the designated quay, to be destroyed and returned to how they were before.
Despite this great commotion, however, the government’s nuclear power administrators made no attempts to step up crisis management, such as laying in specially equipped vehicles for emergencies or conducting general checks for defects at all nuclear facilities. The mist of the safety myth descended once again, obscuring any possibility of an accident. That was the outcome of the Mutsu episode.
People Not Responsible?
The STA continued to oversee the development of nuclear power, but it was incapable of handling serious incidents (jiken) and accidents (jiko) at nuclear facilities. For one thing, it had no designated teams to do so. And, given the nature of the agency, it had no concept of “incidents” or “accidents.”
This was vividly apparent after the December 1995 fire at the Monju fast-breeder reactor, caused by a leak of molten sodium. At a press conference, a councillor of the STA sparked an uproar when he talked about the jishō (“occurrence” or “phenomenon”) at Monju. “What do you mean, ‘occurrence’?” one reporter pressed. “You should call it an ‘incident’ or an ‘accident.’” But the councillor battled gamely on: “This is classed as an occurrence under the STA’s rules. An accident that causes injury or death is an incident, and if a machine had broken down or been destroyed by fire, that would have been an accident. But a sodium leak is considered to be an occurrence and not an incident or accident.”
Sassa Atsuyuki, April 30, 2015
Posted by Dennis Riches at Sunday, May 24, 2015
Former high-level Japanese bureaucrat Shigeaki Koga has gained notoriety for his courageous criticisms of the chilling atmosphere that has come over the Japanese media since Shinzo Abe returned to power and proclaimed to the world in 2012 that “Japan is back.” From where? Going where? No one could tell what this ridiculous statement meant, but it now seems clear it means that Japan is heading in the direction of the recent changes observed in The Asahi Shimbun and TV Asahi. These and other media outlets have been intimidated by government officials, and by third parties doing their bidding, into toning down their coverage of policy changes that the Abe government is trying to implement—such things as revising the constitution, passing the TPP free trade agreement, and restarting nuclear power plants.
The effect of this intimidation seemed to be on display in a recent Asahi Shimbun news report that really functions as an editorial because of the way it frames the issue it covers. The Asahi used to be known for running critical reports that held TEPCO and the government to account, but now it has produced a report which, right from the headline, sets up a biased and false premise. The headline reads: Proponents, foes of nuclear energy content with preaching to the converted.
The article sets out with the seeming intent to be fair and balanced, with some mild jabs at nuclear proponents, but the balancing act itself leaves the reporting completely neutered. The writer has nothing newsworthy to say about energy policy or the problems of nuclear energy. All we have here is the unproven and misleading allegation in the headline that proponents and foes of nuclear energy are content with preaching to the converted their “versions of the truth.” There is no truth here. It’s all relative, don’t ya see?
Later in the article, the writer states, “… ” which is true enough, but it was odd to see this journalist implying that there was something unusual or wrong with this situation. Throughout the article, he completely misses the point that the two sides exist to convey their message not to “the converted” nor to “the other camp” but to the public, the vast majority of whom don’t identify with either side too strongly.
Both sides are engaged in a public information campaign, and they would only be defeating their own purposes if they invited the opposite side to their information meetings. It would be like Toyota giving Honda half of its time on television commercials. The nuclear issue is not a publicly subsidized election campaign with candidates obliged to participate in debates with opponents. Besides, debates seldom happen in Japan during political campaigns anyway, so why suggest that specific interest groups have a duty to offer the public the same?
The writer might have noted the imbalance of power that was obvious in what he wrote about the financing of the two sides’ information campaigns. The pro-nuclear side has been given $376,000 by the nuclear lobby, not a huge sum compared to what is spent in a day to deal with the Fukushima Daiichi ruins, but it is $376,000 more than what was given to the anti-nuclear lobby. There should be a very clear message evident in the very fact that one side needs to be given public funds to convince the public of its worth, while the other side is financed by volunteers and stirred into action without needing to be hired propagandists.
This disparity just makes it more absurd to suggest that the anti-nuclear lobby has some obligation to debate with the other side and work out some kind of compromise. There have been, in fact, many instances of nuclear opponents showing up at public information meetings, but as soon as their numbers grew too large or their objections too vocal, they were barred from participating. These information meetings are known as setsumeikai, or explanatory sessions. Information is designed to flow in one direction only, so the public, and anti-nuclear groups, are not meant to have any input.
In addition to these flaws in the report, the writer quotes some ridiculous illogic from the pro-nuclear side, but fails to question the absurdity of it. For example, a quote from a 1999 JCO report (JCO runs nuclear fuel facilities) on the Tokaimura criticality accident stated:
While attitudes toward nuclear energy have hardened due to the accident that resulted in two deaths, there is also an imbalance because there is ,” the report said. .
Equating other kinds of risk assumption to the risks imposed by nuclear energy is an obvious red herring (distracting and irrelevant analogy), but what is much more amusing is the suggestion that magazines should feel obliged to publish articles promoting nuclear energy. The very word “promotion” suggests a message which must be paid for in some way. There is no eager community of readers and writers who would volunteer to enthusiastically share stories about the wonders of nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is not like surfing or hip-hop music. It is not a hobby that people devote their free time to. Promotion of nuclear energy can be done only by paid propagandists. The suggestion that one kind of private enterprise should voluntarily promote another kind of enterprise is evidence of the sort of narcissistic thinking that nucleocrats engage in: “we know our shit is wonderful, so why do we have to spend all this money to get people to sing our praises?”
In any case, if one is anti-nuclear, there is no compromise possible in which one would say it’s alright to have a little bit of nuclear. There is absolutely no reason to hope for anything to come from public discussions with the pro-nuclear lobby. There is this demand that they be “mature and reasonable” by coming to the table to work out a compromise, but this demand itself is an insidious tactic that aims to legitimize that which should not be allowed.
Thus, it was delusional of this journalist to write an opinion piece claiming that opponents of nuclear energy are obliged to engage in debates with the nuclear industry. If a gang of thugs moves into a town and sets up casinos, opium dens and brothels, and manages to convince a segment of the population that the economic stimulus is worth the social disruption, then the people opposed to this intrusion are under no obligation to debate the legitimacy of what has been imposed on them. For them, the whole enterprise is reprehensible, so the act of debating the right of the intruders to be there is the beginning of making their presence legitimate. And I’m not making this point as an exaggerated comparison. When people allow a radioactive waste factory (often falsely referred to as a “power plant” or an “energy center”) into their communities, they are permitting an environmental crime.
The final blow delivered by the author came in the insinuation that a nuclear opponent (not named in the article) who gave a lecture was unreliable because he ““Even an ordinary citizen like myself can understand that something fearful is occurring just by studying a little,” but these words are framed in a way that suggests he should be dismissed as an amateur. The act of asking whether he had done specialized research on radiation was a way of suggesting that ordinary citizens should just leave everything to the state-sanctioned experts, that they could never educate themselves enough to have a say in these matters. Furthermore, the same question about the lack of qualifications could be more fairly asked of the very ordinary men and women who hold political office.
The more I thought about this report, the more perplexed I became, but then it occurred to me that maybe there is something going on here that I didn’t see at first. Perhaps this is an elaborate act of inter-textual communication, an appeasement of critics and a satire of the sort of news reporting that they like. It is so bad that it could also be seen as a cry for assistance, a coded message from the Asahi Shimbun that tells the world, “Help. We are being held hostage. This is what government and right-wing pressure tactics have led us to write.”
Satoshi Otani, “Proponents, foes of nuclear energy content with preaching to the converted,” Asahi Shimbun, May 7, 2015.
When the cable drama Breaking Bad wrapped up in 2014, I wrote that the story stood as an example of how America’s nuclear legacy is usually overlooked in popular culture. Here we have a story about an evil genius scientist, set in the birthplace of the nuclear era, yet the characters never make explicit reference to Los Alamos or Alamogordo, nuclear waste sites or the many techno-scientific institutions of national security throughout the state. On one occasion, nuclear history appeared as a backdrop (season 2, episode 7) when Walt met with three of his distributors at the National Atomic Museum. It was here that he got the inspiration to make his distribution grow exponentially, like a nuclear chain reaction. The setting helped to underscore that Walt had decided to "go nuclear" in expanding his drug business.
Perhaps the nuclear theme had to be back-grounded in order to sustain the conceit of the story: that a brilliant scientist like Walter White could find employment only as a high school chemistry teacher. In reality, he would have had many opportunities in the defense labs that New Mexico is famous for. It also seems like a good choice to keep the nuclear history in the background because, in reality, that's where it is for most New Mexicans. It is the air they breathe, so no one has to think about it much.
After production of Breaking Bad finished, the creator Vince Gilligan began work on the spinoff Better Call Saul, which tells the back story of the “criminal” criminal lawyer, Saul Goodman ('ts'all good, man). Based on what happened in the last episode of season one, it seems as though the writers want to keep making occasional oblique references to the nuclear history of the state. In the final episode, the beleaguered hero has a “meltdown” while hosting a bingo night at a seniors’ residence. He takes a break from calling the numbers and launches into a rant about his New Mexico state of mind:
None of us is ever leaving this godforsaken wasteland… I mean, what is it with this place? It's like living inside an Easybake oven. Look out that window. It's like a soulless, radioactive Georgia O'Keeffe hellscape out there, crawling with coral snakes and scorpions. Did you ever see the movie The Hills Have Eyes? It’s a documentary! God forbid your car breaks down and you have to walk ten steps: you've got a melanoma the size of a pineapple where your head used to be. So you ask why, if that's how I feel, why do I live here... why? (episode ten, 11:06~)
The Hills Have Eyes (2006 remake of the 1977 original) is a horror film set in New Mexico in which a family is lost in the desert and tormented and hunted by mutant humans born from a nuclear testing site. A reviewer, Richard Scheib, wrote that the remake has…
… an entire subtext about America’s repressed past emerging to devour itself—the credits play over a mix of footage from the 1950s A-bomb tests, while elsewhere there is footage from a documentary about Agent Orange. When we go visit the mutant’s lair, we see a desolate desert town filled with mannequins, antiquated 1950s-styled decor and where a mutant with a giant brain sits watching Divorce Court (1999– )… The Hills Have Eyes (2006) also opts into the view that America’s dirty warlike past has bred a world in the present where such madness seems a natural outgrowth.
The remake was made by French director Alexandre Aja. Perhaps because he was a foreigner looking at America, he was more inclined to put the nuclear history into the story and inject a political subtext into what is, on the surface, B-grade horror shlock.
The nuclear testing village portrayed was a real thing in the history of nuclear testing, but it was built in Nevada. Another, more serious inaccuracy was the depiction of the mutants. Their appearance was inspired by the features of real people born in irradiated environments like Chernobyl and Semipalatinsk. Reviewers and audiences never seemed to reflect on how this aspect of the film might have impacted the feelings of people who have actually been affected by nuclear technology. Was it insensitive to create a work of commercial entertainment that depicts them as savage and vengeful murderers? The real hibakusha in the world have never done anything more than peacefully protest against the inhumanity of nuclear technology. I suppose this is why they call this genre of film “exploitation.”
As the review above states about The Hills Have Eyes, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are also about the “past emerging to devour itself,” and indeed it does in reality as the New Mexico economy has begun to feed off these stories of its own history. The setting is economic and social decline in a state addicted to defense spending. These stories are so grim that they shouldn’t be welcome publicity for New Mexico. They have nothing uplifting to say about the region’s history, but it is what it is. There is money to be made in chasing the vapors cast off by this legacy—the jobs for film crews and tour operators who take visitors to all the famous Breaking Bad filming locations. The question remains: can art lead us to a better place, or does it just provide comfort on the way down?
Professor Hiroaki Koide speaks at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ), Tokyo
April 25, 2014
(1:13:51, in Japanese with an English interpreter)
Nuclear energy expert Professor Hiroaki Koide was recently invited to speak about the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. Professor Koide is known for being one of the few dissident nuclear experts in Japan who defected from the infamous nuclear village. He has now become famous, as much as one can become famous while being largely ignored by mainstream society, for his expert critiques of the nuclear establishment and the way that the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe has been handled.
During his talk on April 25, 2015, Professor Koide reviewed the history of the Fukushima meltdowns for the benefit of the journalists in the room who might not have been familiar with it. He emphasized how badly the public has been deceived all along about the severity of the disaster. Radiation levels inside the damaged reactors are so high that there is no way yet conceived (nor is there likely to be a way conceived in the future) for man or machine to move the lost nuclear waste to a safer location. There is no way to stop the leaking of radiation into the ocean, and there is a finite limit on how much radioactive water can be stored. He suggested the use of air or liquid metal cooling systems, but thought that eventually the Japanese authorities will concede defeat and just entomb the whole site, somehow.
The only development that gave him a small sense of relief was that the spent fuel from Unit 4 had been removed to a “less dangerous” place. Until that operation was concluded, there had been a constant danger that the damaged building containing the spent fuel would collapse in an earthquake and leave a burning heap of radioactive waste that would have forced the population of Tokyo to evacuate.
These circumstances are all familiar to people who have been following the aftermath of the catastrophe over the past four years. The unique and most interesting thing Professor Koide related was the information at the end of his talk about exactly how much Cesium 137 (according to what can be derived from TEPCO's data) was released in the meltdowns of the reactor cores and the fires in the spent fuel pools. He stated that this isotope was the one of most concern to him, even though there were many others to worry about. There was also heavy metal contamination caused by the release of non-radioactive materials in the fuel rods, but he limited his discussion to Cesium 137 because it is an abundant, long-lasting isotope (half-life of 30 years) which has a significant impact on biochemical processes.
He mentioned that the numbers tossed about when referring to the disaster are so astronomical as to be meaningless to most people. It is difficult to impress upon people the significance of peta and tera becquerels and so on. What do these mean? When should we worry? He asked rhetorically for the audience to guess how many kilograms of Cesium 137 were actually released in the catastrophe, then he answered that, remarkably, the total was only 4.7 kilograms, of which 0.75 kg. fell on Japan. The rest drifted eastward over the ocean, or directly into it. He mentioned too that this calculation was based on only the amounts that TEPCO admits to. The actual amount of Cesium 137 released might be much higher, but according to TEPCO all of the decontamination efforts are being done to recover this 0.75 kilograms that fell on Japanese soil. Even if it were ten times as much (7.5 kilograms) that would still be a very small amount of material to try to recover from a large territory.
In mentioning these figures, Professor Koide drove home the point that it is extremely difficult for humans to conceive of the danger that radioactive materials pose relative to their size and weight. It is the enormous hazard-per-gram ratio that makes nuclear energy so easy to ignore when reactors operate normally, and so difficult to manage when they don’t.
Since the catastrophe struck, communities all over northern Japan have frantically tried to “decontaminate” by scraping off topsoil and storing it in plastic bags in “temporary” storage sites. The photos of these sites, some of them stretching out for hundreds of meters, are now famous symbols of the catastrophe. As the bags of soil were full of seeds, they are now sprouting weeds and grasses, so they have effectively become new radioactive plantations partitioned meaninglessly by decomposing plastic. All this dirt was moved in a desperate attempt to collect 750 grams of a fine mist of radioactive particles spread over thousands of square kilometers.
When people say that a small soda can of uranium could give you all the energy you need for your lifetime, it is important to know that such people are exploiting your intuitive but misguided sense of how size and weight relate to danger. When it comes to the threats posed by radiation, we are led astray if we rely on our evolved instincts for judging threats in our surroundings. As Professor Koide pointed out, if a person were able to hold an amount of Cesium 137 large enough to be tangible, that person wouldn't be alive much longer.
There are some scientists on the pro-nuclear side who have made the radical claim that it is precisely these miniscule quantities of cesium that make the response to the Fukushima catastrophe an extreme over-reaction. They insist that there would be no noticeable impact on health far into the future if there were no evacuations and no attempt at decontamination. Professor Koide was asked about this in the question period after his talk and he dismissed such minimizing. He spoke with typical polite Japanese understatement, but it was clear that he was implying that these scientists should shut their mouths and stop making people doubt their sensible decision to minimize exposure to radiation as much as possible. He reminded everyone that the measures taken after the disaster were made according to laws based on the standards set by the nations that use and promote nuclear energy. He suggested that the minimizers should focus their energies on changing these laws (good luck with that, knock yourselves out, he seemed to imply), but in the meantime they should shut up and stop distracting the public with the suggestion that everyone should just suck up the extra radiation and be happy.