French nuclear waste project hungry for land

Some people might wonder why I write so much about le nucléaire in France while I live so much closer to Fukushima. One reason is that I can understand written French much better than I understand written Japanese. Another is that the Fuku-Ichi catastrophe is already being covered intensely by others, and I ran out of things to say about. The best reason is that what is happening in France has some instructive lessons to teach to other nuclearized nations that haven't given much thought to what to do about nuclear fuel after it has been through the fissioning process. This end-product is commonly called "nuclear waste" but it should be recognized as the main product of the nuclear industry. The heat that fissioning generates is just a passing phenomenon, a by-product.
We can at least give France credit for trying to face up to the fact that something needs to be done with nuclear waste. Nations such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have pretended for a long time that the problem could be ignored. Since the triple meltdowns and spent fuel fire in Fukushima, the issue has gained some attention, thanks in part to former prime minister Koizumi's efforts to make the political establishment face up to it. It has become obvious that the original plan to "recycle" nuclear waste with fast breeder reactors was a total pipe dream, so now there has been some talk of finding communities that might agree to allow geological disposal in a suitable site. Yet suitable sites are impossible to find, and even if there were any, agreeable communities would still be hard to find. Recently, there was even talk of burying nuclear waste under the seabed.
Over the last two years I've translated several articles about the French CIGEO project that aims to create a deep geological repository in Bure, in northeastern France (see the links below). I believe these reports from France can serve as a valuable warning about what rural communities around the world can expect when national authorities come around trying to impose their grand plans for "the final solution."
This latest installment illustrates how the original plan, once it has got some level of local agreement and momentum, can later take on other aims and have wider effects than the locals originally understood.    

In Bure, nuclear waste clears a path through the thickets
by Professor Canardeau
December 2015

a translation of
A Bure, les déchets nucléaires se tirent la bourre
Le Canard enchaîné, décembre 2015

Since 2008, in Bure, where the highest level nuclear wastes produced by 58 EDF reactors are supposed to be buried for 100,000 years (and longer!), the organization in charge of this project has been undertaking land acquisitions at a frenetic pace. The purchases consist of effectively 3,000 hectares that ANDRA (l'Agence nationale pour la gestion des déchets radioactifs) has already bought in Haute-Marne and la Meuse. Yet the above-ground installation at CIGEO (the deep geological repository for nuclear waste) is to occupy only 300 hectares, ten times less than what has been purchased.
Opponents of CIGEO are intrigued to discover that certain parcels of land have been bought at high prices, as much as 10,000 euros per hectare, which is double or triple the market price.
Jean-Paul Baillet, assistant director general of ANDRA explains these prices quite simply, "We sometimes had to buy land from farmers, and we also had to buy their houses, their cattle…" Their cattle? "Of course we resold those." But farmers in the area are beginning to fear an escalation of prices. On November 15th, 2015, eleven tractors assembled in front of ANDRA offices to protest the land grab by the agency.

3,000 hectares: for what exactly?

But why such an unhealthy appetite for land? Why did ANDRA buy 2,254 hectares for 15 million euros, and an additional 850 hectares reserved close to SAFER, the regional rural land management society, making a total of 3,014 hectares? Jean-Paul Baillet of ANDRA adds, "By offering land swaps, we wanted to avoid having to expropriate land from farmers who found they had land on the site." And the forests? Among all the lands purchased, 2,052 hectares are forest land. "This is also to have land for exchange because the entrances to the tunnels will be on forested lands. We have to make up for this loss of environmental heritage." But to buy more than 2,000 hectares of forests to compensate for at most 100 hectares cut down? This is what is bizarre. Unperturbed, Jean-Paul Baillet elaborates, "We want to conserve the forests as good custodians while we safeguard our investments."
If ANDRA wants to safeguard the 80 million-euro budget for CIGEO, all the forests of la Marne won't be enough," scoffs Maurice Michel, president of Asodedra, one of the local groups opposed to nuclear waste disposal. Bernard Heuillon, a proprietor of a family-owned forest in la Meuse, confirmed such a view. "I never earned anything from these woods." This former geologist doesn't doubt that these purchases indicate ANDRA's intention to expand CIGEO. What if, as he believes, the agency is preparing to store radioactive waste above ground?
It's plausible, in effect: the storage site in la Manche, next to la Hague, where there are medium and low-level wastes, has been full since 1994. And it's on the move. Since 2003, new waste has been sent to the storage facility in l'Aube. But this site isn't designed to hold it permanently.
So, is Bure set to be a future site of above-ground nuclear waste storage? After all, while we are waiting for the passage of a law on "reversibility" to come soon, the burial project has not yet been officially validated.


Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence: A Christmas Tale for the War on Terror

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Directed by Nagisa Oshima, Screenplay by Nagisa Oshima and Paul Mayersberg
Based on The Seed and the Sower  and The Night of the New Moon by Laurens van der Post
Starring David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thompson
Music by Ryuichi Sakamoto

It should be obvious that we won't preserve our environment or rid the world of nuclear weapons if the nations of the world don't start rebuilding a serious amount of lost trust and making up for lost opportunities. So for Christmas I depart from the usual topics and cover the classic war film from 1983, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
One wouldn't expect to find a redeeming message for humanity in the 21st century in a tale about the horrors of life in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, but if you've been listening to the new atheist intellectuals tell you that modernity is in a fight for its life against an unprecedented, barbaric and irrational ideology, this story serves as a good reminder that there is nothing new under the sun. The West's now friendly ally Japan was once seen an irredeemable fundamentalist death cult obsessed with suicide attacks, disembowelment and decapitation. Sound familiar?
That fundamentalist cult is still there under the surface. The current prime minister is a grandson of one of the leaders who was charged with war crimes after WWII, and unlike in Germany where it is taboo to deny Nazi atrocities, in Japan it is still taboo to admit to Japanese atrocities in China.[1] However, the point is that Japan reverted to a certain level of normality in its international relations, and other countries welcomed it back into the family of nations. If ISIS toned down its extremism a little and made political compromises with other nations, it is not inconceivable that it could transform itself into a legitimate state that is no more extreme than Saudi Arabia. And that says a lot about our acceptance of Saudi Arabia as a member of the international community.
The fictional film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence was based on the writings of the POW camp survivor Laurens van der Post. The survivors of Japanese POW camps told of the brutality of their captors who ran the camps on the values of bushido rather than on the international laws of war and the Geneva conventions. That brutality is depicted in the film, but if that was all there was to it, there wouldn't be anything compelling to watch. What makes it worthwhile is the way the humanity of the captors bleeds out of them despite their best efforts to cover it with their shame and their ideology. At the same time, the allied prisoners are also seen to be victims of their own culture's hideous rituals and beliefs. Both sides share the toxic shame of having betrayed a brother or comrades while trying to live up to an ideal of manhood (women are completely absent in the story).
The camp commander, Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), carries his shame and recognizes that one of the enemy captives, Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie), suffers from a similar affliction--a shame that resulted in a disregard for his own life, which comes across as apparent bravery and fearlessness. For Yanoi, this recognition remains subconscious, as it only triggers an erotic attraction which deepens the shame in his tortured psyche. He can explain it only as a demonic possession that his enemy has inflicted on him.
Another officer in the camp, Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano), has no such delicate sentiments while he torments the prisoners with random beatings. But in all his interactions with Colonel Lawrence, a Japanese-speaking prisoner, his vicious sarcasm quickly settles into friendly teasing and banter, and it becomes obvious that in spite of himself, he wants to connect with these men whom he is supposed to hold in contempt. In the scene that gave the film its title, he gets drunk on Christmas day and commutes two death sentences, proclaiming himself to be "father Christmas."
The historical record shows that the fundamentalist death cult burned itself out and that it was never really in charge anyway. When it became obvious that a Soviet invasion was imminent, the capitalists who ran the country were ready to cut a deal and suffer an American occupation. The atomic bombings barely registered as a topic in the cabinet meetings in the last week before surrender.[2] It shouldn't be forgotten that the tribunals held by the victors sentenced minor figures like Sergeant Hara to death. Officers higher up the chain of command also received death sentences not only for allowing torture but for having failed to ensure it wouldn't occur. For America's "excesses" and "mistakes" in Iraq since 2003, the same standard was never applied.


[1] Tom Clifford, "Japan Rewrites War History at Yasukuni," Counterpunch, August 13, 2013. http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/08/13/japan-rewrites-war-history-at-yasukuni/ 

[2] Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Belknap Press, 2006).

Other Sources

John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (Norton & Company, 1999). 

Kurt Loder, "Straight Time," Rolling Stone, May 1983, (interview with David Bowie)

Richard H. Minear, Victor's Justice: The Tokyo War Crimes Trial (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1971).


French Polynesia: Witnesses of the Bomb

July 2nd, 2016 marks 50 years since French Polynesia became a “center for experimentation” for the French nuclear weapons program. We could call the quiet disaster that followed “the Chernobyl of the Pacific.” The voices of those who lived through this period (1966-1996) sound all too similar to those in Voices of Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich. Yet the significant difference is that Chernobyl was an unintended, though perhaps predictable, catastrophe. The French nuclear tests in the South Pacific were plotted and carried out over thirty years, premeditated with full awareness of what the consequences would be. The French program also differs from the American program in the Marshall Islands in that it was carried out in a well-established colony of France. The Americans were newcomers when they came to the Marshall Islands and imposed their plans for destruction on a defenseless culture. The French nucleocrats came to Polynesia seeking the cooperation of the territorial government which, if not for the temptations of jobs and economic benefits brought by the CEP (Centre d’expérimentation du Pacifique en Polynésie française), could have opposed the nuclear tests and probably could have succeeded in stopping them. And this is one aspect of the story that stings the conscience of Polynesia to this day. The tests did proceed, against the strong objections of the world and all other Pacific Island nations, and they were carried out after the United States and the Soviet Union had recognized the madness of atmospheric and underwater tests and halted them in the early 1960s.
On July 2nd, as Polynesians gather to remember the testing era, in solidarity with the military and civilian veterans from France who are also victims of the fallout, they are protesting several aspects of their official treatment. One is the lack of progress in recognition of health effects and compensation for victims. The Morin Law of 2010 was supposed to have been a major step in this direction, but almost all applications have been rejected since the law came into effect. Polynesians are also displeased with the unapologetic stance of the French government that was made obvious during President Hollande’s visit earlier this year. While admitting to the consequences of testing, he never came close to saying the nuclear tests are something to be regretted. He declared, “I recognize that the nuclear tests conducted between 1966 and 1996 in French Polynesia had an environmental impact, and caused health consequences,” but he added that without its overseas territories, “France would not now have nuclear weapons and the power of dissuasion.” [1] Thus, though he admitted that the testing program had grave social and biological consequences, the lack of apology was equivalent to saying Polynesians had made a noble sacrifice and France was at best grateful for it.
Over the years, pro-France and pro-independence parties have been in and out of power. For periods of months or one to three years, the pro-independence leader Oscar Temaru was president of French Polynesia (2004, 2005-2006, 2007-2008, 2009, 2011-2013), and during his time in power he initiated many policies to investigate the effects of nuclear testing and educate Polynesians and the world about the nuclear testing era. It was during this time that Bruno Barrillot was appointed by Temaru as lead researcher, and the Witnesses of the Bomb project was one of products of these efforts. Three of the testimonies from the exhibit and related book have been translated and published below. The French version of the 37-page book is available as a free pdf download here.
This week, at the exhibition Polynesia Under the Bomb, Oscar Temaru stated the case for Polynesian independence, saying that in order for Polynesia to succeed at the International Court of Justice, it has to go as a sovereign nation, and in order to sign cooperative accords with France, the two nations have to negotiate as equal independent states. He called the existing Papeete Accords a great lie carried out with the complicity of our “elected sellouts.” [2]
Facebook group Moruroaetatou

The excerpts that follow are translations of testimonies in the Witnesses of the Bomb publication that was released in 2013. The French text, with the portrait photography, is available online at no cost. The video is an interview with researcher Bruno Barrillot about the project.

The English transcript can be found at the end of this article.
Excerpts from:
Witnesses of the Bomb
Témoins de la bombe, Les éditions Univers Polynésiens, 2013
(free pdf, in French).

Witnesses of the Bomb
Foreword: To give meaning to things unsaid

The big bang of the bomb has not finished propagating its waves through the Polynesian universe. There isn't really any scientific discourse, or even a rational discourse throughout these thirty-three testimonies. In effect, how could one be rational when the big bang has taken root in a nest of irrationality and denial of all humanity?
For the exhibition Witnesses of the Bomb, Marie-Hélène Villierme and Arnaud Hudelot have, each with their own art form, captured these Polynesian voices before they fade. In order to not forget.
Marie-Hélène, the photographer, has caught in these thirty-three portraits expressions of indignation in some, resignation in others, the emotions always overlaid with modesty.
Arnaud Hudelot, the director, effaced himself behind the testimonies of the witnesses. The videos reveal long monologs imprinted with memories that have now escaped being lost to time. They tell of unexplained mourning, endured in general indifference, and the fear in which one makes a tentative explanation of a social disruption still so poorly grasped.
This story is one of infinite sadness! Had these words ever been uttered on the nuclear atolls, how they could have had the power to frighten and dissuade. And still there is this bomb which, today, some dare not call by its name: "that thing," said Jacqueline. Or there are still these diseases with no name which the doctors refrain from qualifying. And there is still the remorse, barely concealed, in which some imagine themselves still guilty for having touched the money that came from the bomb.
There is hope, nonetheless, with this pride in having resisted, with bare hands, one could say, the steamrolling onslaught of a moneyed propaganda machine, with an ardent desire to construct a memory for the generations to come.
--Bruno Barrillot
Witness: Régis Gooding

Régis Gooding worked at Moruroa from the age of 16, at the time of the atmospheric tests, to "help his father feed his four brothers and three sisters." He tells how a kid of 16 could live so far from his family in such a dangerous workplace: a life that was practically a dream, full of unknown pleasures—cinema, water sports…
"It was a great life because we didn't have to worry about meals. Our laundry was done on the ship. We were there to get on with the work of the atomic bomb, but everything was done for us to make sure we wouldn't get bored. We were kept busy."
Régis describes the bomb, as he saw it from the ship he was based on at Moruroa, without forgetting all that was forbidden… "As if you could stop a Polynesian from eating fish!" Discrimination?
"After a detonation, the technicians from the CEA came with their equipment, gas masks, all covered up in white suits, with boots and gloves, while the Polynesians and local workers were in their sandals and shorts, longshoreman's wear, with nothing special. That was their work outfit.
Régis stayed only one year in Moruroa, but he became a soldier and was sent there in 1977 for a military mission. He witnessed the land collapsing after an underground detonation, and the tsunami that followed it. "It was after this that the legionnaires built a protective wall and installed security platforms."
Régis' father also worked at Moruroa. He was ill, but he was hired anyway by the CEA in Mahina. His eczema got so bad that they told him not to come back to work. He died finally of the cancer that had been called "eczema." Regis asks with resentment, "Why are such people who worked for the bomb forgotten? He was in Muru, he got skin cancer, but it's not his fault, so whose fault is it? Is it because he breathed Polynesian air that he got contaminated? Who brought this contamination here?"
"I was 16 when I started to work at the sites. I was a warehouseman. At that age, it was an adventure, but I also left in order to send something to my grandmother because my grandfather had just passed away. The hardest time was the evenings and the weekends, because you miss your family at that age. But there everything was done to make sure no one got bored. There were a lot of recreational activities: sailboarding, soccer, motorbikes, cinema, picnics--like living in a chateau or something! A friend of mine was stricken because he had eaten some fish. His skin fell off. He was admitted to the infirmary, then after that no one knew where he went. But among us, we knew how many sick ones there were. I have a lot of friends who have died. In 2002, I came back from the army and I found two or three friends, but I was told the others were all dead."

Witness: Chantal Spitz

Chantal Spitz described her first experiences as a protester against nuclear testing: "When I came back home I was always in trouble because it wasn't acceptable behavior for the dominant aristo-bourgeoisie."
After having described the shadowy connivance of a certain segment of Polynesian society with the colonial system, the author sums up the pain of her people: "We have just lived through 30 years so terrifying that I don't know if we can ever restore ourselves again, and what makes me afraid is that we are going to pass this pain on to our children and grandchildren because they won't have the tools to journey across this history.
Without the active participation of local authorities, the French state could never have done what it did here. At the same time, it is difficult to feel betrayed, betrayed by oneself. We believe we were betrayed by others. Why wouldn't we? But to have betrayed oneself, that's harder to face. I believe we can measure the poisons in the environment, eventually. We take measurements, record a certain level of radioactivity, see the dead coral. No problem. But how do we measure the poisons in our minds and in our souls? We can't measure them, and we can't even prevent ourselves from transmitting them to our children and grandchildren.
Chantal Spitz finishes on a note of pride. "But it was a great thing that we marched. It was—I don't want to say courageous—but we had to do it. We had to dare to do it.
A message of hope and dignity addressed to the younger generation?

The question "Was Polynesia contaminated?" is not a question for the present. It's a certainty about what happened during the time of nuclear tests in the atmosphere. All of Polynesia was showered with radioactive fallout. There is no doubt about that. They even admit it. But they say, "For sure it was admissible. The norms of the time permitted it." That's the nonsense they tell us today.

When we demanded the opening of the archives of the classified files under the new law of two years ago, they found there were a few documents missing from the years 1966-67. What can be seen in these files stamped classified for national security? We see records of meetings of military authorities, the highest authorities, including the director and the high commissioner of the CEA [commissariat à l'énergie atomique], professor Rocard, the so-called father of the French bomb. They were all there around a table in Paris saying "Alright, we're going to do tests in French Polynesia. We will still have to be sure that there is no contamination of the population of Tureia and Mangareva because the people there are genetically fragile."

So they knew. It's written there in black and white! All those people there were visiting during the time of the tests saying they came to admire les vahines* of Mangareva or Tureia. They went to see the nature and the little flowers and said how lovely it was. They came acting in friendship to these people when they knew very well that their bombs were going to, shall we say, disrupt their health and the very life of these small, defenseless populations.

Sure, it's in the past. It was especially bad in the time of the atmospheric tests, but how can we measure the consequences for the present? It's in the health of the Polynesians. How many women and young Polynesians have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer among those who were children at the time of the atmospheric tests? I'm not saying every problem was caused by the nuclear tests. For sure there are many other possibilities that are related to modern lifestyles that came from the money brought by the nuclear tests, but we can still state that the nuclear tests had an impact on the serious problems in public health that exist here with, for example, the high rate of cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

This is taught. It is known, for example, from what happened in the Marshall Islands, what international specialists knew about illnesses caused by radiation. We know. We know it today. We know that it is not only cancers that come from contact with ionizing radiation. There are also many cardiovascular diseases. And genes are affected too. So this is known—officially. In fact, all this was known in the 1950s. The Americans had published studies on the survivors of Hiroshima, and on the first tests in the Marshall Islands.

In 1957-58, among the scientific community there was a sort of outcry. There were symposia of Nobel prize physicians throughout the Western world which said to the nuclear powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, stop atmospheric testing. And there were often more than one hundred parents among them. They were endangering the health of all humanity and so both the Soviet Union and the United States decided to stop the tests in October 1959: a moratorium.** And France began tests in 1960, but everything was known at the time. Everything was known.

And so today when some want to make excuses, and even when some Polynesian interlocutors, perhaps good Christians say, "OK, listen to the military people. When they came they didn't know everything about radioactivity." Not true. They knew everything.

They knew all about it. So, to be quite frank, I think there is absolutely no excuse. For a country the only reason that is has for nuclear tests is reasons of state. People: they matter very little. Workers, military personnel engaged in the process of conducting tests: they matter very little. It is reasons of state that matter.

* Vahine simply means woman in Polynesian, but the term is loaded with connotations of exoticism, eroticism and mythical fantasies about the women of the islands, projected on to them by men who came from the outside world.

** Mr. Barrillot may have got the date wrong. According to the table in Wikipedia's Nuclear weapons testing page: "USA agrees; ban begins on 31 October 1958, 3 November 1958 for the Soviets, and lasts until abrogated by a USSR test on 1 September 1961." Author's/translator's note: I always feel a bit lucky in this regard. I was born in August 1959, so the moratorium coincided with my conception and development until the age of 49 months. My mother and I were spared some exposure to the short-lived radionuclides in the global fallout.

This post was updated on June 29, 2016 


[2] Temaru dénonce les élus « vendus de notre pays », Radio 1 Tahiti, June 27, 2016,