Environment

French Protesters Shake Fists at Nuclear Goliaths

An unprecedented country-wide protest infuses new energy into the antinuclear movement.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

More than 40 years after first warning that “le nucleaire” is too risky for France and the planet, battle-scarred veterans of France’s David & Goliath antinuclear movement have been organizing younger “ecolos” to infuse new energy into the antinuclear movement.

Amid fears of nuclear terrorism, accidents and the erosion of free speech in France’s state of emergency, a coalition of 20 groups from across the top half of France held a rare mass antinuclear protest (Oct 1-2) in the most nuclearized part of the country on Normandy’s English Channel coast.

Arriving by busload, shared car and bicycles, thousands converged on a tiny conservative seaside village to vent their opposition to France’s pro-nuclear “orthodoxy” and shake a fist at the industrial giant.

“Siouville Antinuclear Capital” blared yellow signs outside supermarkets and boulangeries(bakeries) announcing the unprecedented event, startling customers buying baguettes. For this rural village of 1,100 where most year-round residents are nuclear workers or retirees, the protest was unheard-of.

A surprising number of locals worried aloud that the “ecolos” might break doors or car windows. (They didn't). “They’re against everything,” scoffed a retiree. “They should go back to candles.”

March to nuclear power plant. Photo by Clare Kittredge. 

Because of the state of emergency, the protest required unprecedented permits at many levels of government, said Mayor Bertrand Bottin. A nuclear shipyard retiree, he said the 15-member Municipal Council unanimously allowed it anyway.

“If it had been a pronuclear protest, I would have made the same decision,” Bottin said in his hilltop office. “You don’t want to spit in the soup,” he said using a term of respect for jobs. “But for me, it’s about democracy and free expression. We’re living through so many things with the terrorist attacks, saying no would have meant we’re scared.”  

Specifically, the protest targeted the world’s largest nuclear reactor, the huge 1650 megawatt EPR (European Pressurized Reactor) being built near a quaint coastal port despite cost overruns, delays and technical problems. The protesters criticized plans to refurbish France’s aging reactors instead of retiring them, and the nation’s whole vast nuclear program as way too risky for the 21stcentury.

Braving violent downpours and hail, a crowd of 3,000 to 5,000 hardy souls marched up a steep village street. While an old farmer tended his chickens, they chanted: “Fukushima, plus jamais ca! (transl: Fuskushima, never again!” and “Nucleaire, de l’emploi dans les cimetieres,” (transl: “Nuclear power, jobs in cemeteries.)

Fighting 20-mile-an-hour-winds, they marched past fields and a grand sea vista with the Channel Islands on the horizon. Cows and curious locals looked on as the human river two km (1.24 miles) long snaked down a narrow country road to a tiny port. They streamed past a homespun “Monument aux Irradies Inconnus” (transl: Monument to Unknown Radiation Victims) on an activist’s land, mimicking the tomb of the unknown soldier in villages across France.

Didier Anger signing his book on the EPR. Photo by Clare Kittredge. 

As the forces of order circled overhead in roaring helicopters and menacingly stood guard on the cliffs, the protesters marched up to the nuclear plant complex gates, chanting and brandishing homemade signs. A rumpled teeshirt said it all: “If the Romans had had nuclear power, we’d still be dealing with their waste.”

Leading the charge were iconic figures of France’s fractious antinuclear movement, retired high school (lycee) teachers Paulette and Didier Anger. A former EU Parliament-member and co-founder of the French Green Party, Didier Anger at 77 has been fighting what he calls France’s monolithic “nuclear lobby” for most of his adult life. Demonstrations, marches, press conferences, legal cases, campaigns—he and his wife and companion-at-arms Paulette, 74, have done it all. Over the years, they have counted as allies famed oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau and the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists.

A blocky salt-of-the-earth type with an encyclopedic mind, Didier Anger has written four books on the uphill antinuclear struggle in France. His latest is “The EPR, A Disaster in Progress.” Despite the caricature of France as 100% pronuclear, Anger said one of the protest’s goals is to show the world that “we exist. We are not marginal.”

For him (Didier Anger), it’s also about asserting the right to free expression during France’s state of emergency: “Free expression only gets used up if you don’t use it,” he quipped. (When he was told that nobody even checked this reporter's papers  or passport when she entered France a few days ago, he grinned and said: "they only use the state of emergency to bother people they want to hassle").

Asked what’s the point if they don’t shut the plants down, he said even uphill battles must be fought-- and this one isn’t lost, he insisted in a professorial voice. “The battles we lose are the ones we don’t fight.”

The whole French nuclear scene is vast and complex, with many moving parts. France has 58 nuclear reactors-- about half the US number—that’s a lot for a country the size of Texas. Nuclear plants provide the lion’s share (more than 75%) of France’s electricity. By contrast, neighboring countries like Germany started phasing out nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan. But France is forging ahead.

The protest site in Northwestern Normandy is France’s most nuclearized zone-- a place where the contrast between huge and human scale is most extreme.

On this iridescent green cliff-edged spit of land reminiscent of the Western coast of Ireland, the nuclear waste plant became the world’s largest commercial nuclear waste reprocessing plant. Extracting plutonium from nuclear waste, the Areva NC La Hague plant routinely releasesradioactive wastewater and gases into air and sea, according to ACRO, (Association pour le Controle de la Radioactivite dans l’Ouest) an independent radiation-testing lab.

(On the health front, one of the protestors' gripes, the waste plant says its routine releases pose no health risks. But critics say they include large amounts of long-lived radioactive iodine 129 (half-life: 16 million years) even though the technology exists to filter it out. The waste plant also releases about as much radioactive tritium as all the world’s 400-plus nuclear reactors combined, Didier Anger says. There are other problems. Greenpeace says the nuclear waste dump next door, France’s oldest, has been leaking radioactive contaminants into local waterways. And down the coast in Flamanville, three looming reactors dwarf the landscape, including the largest reactor the world has ever known, the disputed EPR.) 

March snakes down the hill to the EPR plant. Photo by Clare Kittredge.

Marching past blackberry brambles and stone walls, Shaun Burnie, a Scotsman with a brogue, said the French nuclear industry is in big trouble. A longtime Greenpeace specialist usually based in Japan, Burnie rattled off a laundry list of issues afflicting it-- spent fuel storage problems, radioactive wastewater releases, plutonium transports, drone flights over plants.

“La Hague has 12,000 tons of spent fuel. It dumps ten million liters of radioactive water a year into the sea; 160 kg of plutonium oxide powder leave the plant twice a week,” Burnie said of the waste plant dominating the horizon. And Greenpeace just released a “catastrophic” reportalleging falsified data and flawed reactor vessel steel in many French reactors, including the EPR, he said.

But in Normandy, the nuclear industry is the biggest employer. Shiny brochures in mayors’ offices relentlessly tout its benefits. “We’re in the nuclear peninsula,” said Didier Anger. “We’re in a state of mono-industry-- we're a conquered land.”

Monument to unknown radiation victims. Photo by Clare Kittredge. 

After the march, the crowd held debates and ate organic food. The menu included organic French fries and nettle pesto, wine and hard cider dispensed from a horsedrawn cart. An American visitor said the mix of millennials with children and older movement veterans looked for all the world like a gentle, educated Bernie Sanders crowd. On the wall of a tent festooned with artwork, a telling cartoon showed two cows silhouetted against a reactor cooling tower eyeing the grass. The caption: “to graze or not to graze, that is the question.”

For some, the rare mass protest in France-- the first in years-- marked a resurrection of the movement. It followed the British post-Brexit decision to allow two more hulking EPRs at Hinkley Point in England.

On hand were several British activists. Allan Jeffery, assistant coordinator of Stop Hinkley, called for “a world with clean, decentralized, renewable energy.” Nikki Clark of SWAN (SouthWest Against Nuclear) said it’s time to turn away from “technocratic dynosaurs.”

Several complained that in France, nuclear energy is so heavily promoted that French schoolchildren visit nuclear plants instead of wind farms. EDF (Electricite de France, the 85% state-owned electric utility) touts the industry as France’s second most-visited industrial tourist attraction.

Complicating matters for the opposition is terrorism. “We’re in a difficult period for activism because of the state of emergency,” said Stanislas Chapel, 45, a member of CRILAN whose land hosts the monument to radiation victims. “It complicates everything.”

Although the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan definitely caused shivers in France, Simone Fest, a retired management trainer for Sortir du Nucleaire Paris, said France’s  “cote cocorico (transl: cockadoodledoo side) gets in the way. “We’re the best.” Another challenge is that young French people have never known life without nuclear plants. “I lived here before the nuclear industry,” she said. “But young people don’t know that.”

For some, the situation in France echoes a bigger struggle happening across the planet between huge interests and tiny homegrown citizens’ groups, like the showdown between the Native Americans and the oil pipeline in the US. As Didier Anger likes to put it: “The antinuclear fight is a fight for democracy.”

Horses pull beverage cart. Photo by Clare Kittredge. 

More than 40 years ago, he and his wife Paulette helped found a small local antinuclear group,CRILAN (Comite de Reflexion, d’Information et de Lutte Anti-Nucleaire or Committee for Antinuclear Reflection, Information and Struggle). Today, he is its president, she is its secretary.

For these two aging antinuclear veterans who gave up their summer vacations to organize the troops, the latest protest is a significant milestone in a long, hard slog. “40 years of antinuclear struggles…” proclaims the cover of a brochure Paulette Anger created and crammed full of shots of past protests, “and it’s not over!”

Clare Kittredge is a former longtime Boston Globe correspondent with lifelong ties to Northwestern Normandy who is writing a book about the anti-nuclear movement. 

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