Nuclear Waste: French National Assembly looks for the least bad solution

French police launched a surprise operation at dawn on February 22, 2018 to evict protesters from the site targeted for storage of nuclear waste in the Bure area of eastern France. (See the Reuters report for details, or this one from Counterpunch) I’ve written several reports on the continuing saga of this site (links below). In the past few months, the confrontations have become ugly.

The recent operation was announced after it had begun. Police in body armor moved in with earth moving equipment shortly before dawn. The plan to store nuclear waste has not yet got government approval and is strongly opposed by local groups and environmentalists. In fact, the more time passes, the more doubts about the plan leak out from scientists inside the government agencies. There are just too many uncertainties about what will happen down in the hole in the near and distant future. Rather than going ahead with an irreversible burial, many are advocating for a cautious “rolling stewardship” of the wastes above ground. However, this option fails to give the nuclear industry the “out of sight, out of mind” finality that would make it easier for them to continue producing irradiated nuclear fuel. Perpetual above-ground storage would put an end to public acceptance of nuclear energy, so the industry hesitates to face up to this moment of truth.

Despite the inevitable failure of the plan to bury nuclear waste, President Emmanuel Macron’s government wants to prevent protester-occupation movements. There has been a similar one over a plan to build a new airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near Nantes in the west of France—a plan which was dropped finally in January 2018.

Shortly after the police action in Bure, Mathilde Panot, an opposition member of the National Assembly assailed the Minister of Ecology, Nicolas Hulot, over his failure to prevent the suppression of protests. Mr. Hulot had a long career as a journalist and ecologist, and became famous for his educational efforts and advocacy for environmental protection. At one point in her questioning of the minister, Ms. Panot holds up a photo of Mr. Hulot holding a sign supporting the protests against the nuclear waste storage facility. Here we see him pinned in the trap he jumped into by taking a post within the conservative, neoliberal administration of Emmanuel Macron. He provided green cover to the government while proving himself powerless within the cabinet to stop the abuse of the citizens he used to support. In his response, he hints that the nuclear waste project is a dead letter and will not be enacted, but as he says, “nothing is definitive.” No one can rest easy about the way the aging nuclear project is coming to its “moment of truth.”

One can read the transcript that follows, or go to the English-subtitled video of the interaction in the National Assembly. As is usual, only about 10% of the representatives appear to be present for the session (though the house was packed in 2016 when Pamela Anderson came to talk about animal rights, with no translation into French). The situation is not very heartening, but the French protesters and both of these politicians deserve respect for bringing the issue to the forefront. In most other nuclear states, questions about nuclear energy  or nuclear weapons are considered “matters of state,” which means not up for debate in legislatures, and not on the agenda of any political party during election campaigns. One may say that Mr. Hulot is a sellout for joining the government, and that he sold out the protesters by dismissing their action as illegal, but it remains to be seen whether he will have some influence in putting an end to the burial plan in order to find the least bad option for the disaster that has been created over the last seven decades.

Mathilde Panot:

As your Secretary of State Sebastien Lecornu has gone to Bure today, your government chose this day for a violent expulsion of protesters from Lejuc forest, as well as from the “maison de résistance.” More than 500 officers were mobilized for the occasion. Need I remind you that a judicial recourse is pending to contest the legality of the occupation of the forest by ANDRA [Agence Nationale pour la Gestion des Déchets Radioactifs] for the work related to the project to bury nuclear waste there? Sending the police before the courts decide—a strange concept of democracy. The liberalism of Emmanuel Macron is being applied against our liberties. Your ecology, Monsieur le Ministre, is being applied against ecologists. You were saying a short while ago, and I quote, “One cannot impose these wastes like this on local populations... without consultation, without transparence.” Did you think that the use of an impersonal pronoun would relieve you of your individual responsibility? It does not, Monsieur le Ministre. In fact, as for transparence, you study no alternative, just as with Notre-Dame-des-Landes for a long time. In fact, as for consultation, you repress violently. No doubt this pleases the Minister of the Interior who likes to use strength against the weak. But beyond him, it’s the entire government that is engaged in this, and you in particular. Look at this photo [of Mr. Hulot, from days past, holding a sign in support of protesters] that I have brought to you. The protesters at Bure saw you at the time it was taken just as I see you today. I no longer recognize you. You can no longer stick your head in the sand, Monsieur Hulot. You know the risks of fire associated with CIGEO, [Centre Industriel de Stockage Géologique] stressed by the IRSN [Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire]. The dangers of nuclear waste burial are known, if you listen to particle physicists. My question is simple: where is Monsieur Hulot, and does he have a shred of coherence? Why don’t you quit this government where you endorse this violence against citizens who are standing up for the interests of everyone?

Speaker of the House:

I thank you, Madame Deputy. But I remind you of the rule that forbids the brandishing of objects so I would thank you, Madame Panot, if you respected this rule we are all bound by. Monsieur le Ministre.

Nicolas Hulot:

Thank you, Madame Présidente [speaker of the house]. Fellow deputies, Madame Panot, I don’t have the impression, fundamentally, of going against my conscience. I would have preferred to never have it come to this; that is, to never have this situation with these final waste products which no one in France or elsewhere wants. But now that I have the responsibility, the only thing that has changed is my function, and I can’t make these nuclear wastes disappear with a magic wand. We haven’t completed all the steps, and nothing is definitive, and nothing is being done as yet. The laboratory is searching for solutions, so what you just said about the dangers that were revealed recently concerning the bituminous wastes I am well aware of. There has been no authorization yet. We have to look at opposition by citizens that is necessary and legitimate, that is pertinent and which showed very, very often valid reasons to be concerned. Some protests were within a legal framework but others were not. Pardon me for saying it, but it’s a matter of public order. But I think we will have a debate and a dialogue that is more fruitful and rational, within a legal framework. But here is what I simply wanted to say to you. I believe that, effectively, we are now at the moment of truth for our nuclear installations. We have these wastes which we should have dealt with sooner because we knew that they posed a considerable philosophical problem which goes beyond our petty preoccupations with each other. Will we bury these wastes in a way that is irreversible for hundreds of thousands of years? It’s not my conception of civilization, but I will say it once again: I can’t make nuclear waste magically disappear, so we have to find the least bad solution, but no solution has been enacted yet.

Other sources on this topic:

Linda Pentz Gunter, "Monsieur Hulot's Nuclear Holiday," Counterpunch, February 27, 2018.

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