Living with nuclear risk

How does one live near and work at sites where an accident, radiation, or a “low dose” radioactive contamination is a constant threat? Welcome to daily life in a nuclear society, where people have trivialized nuclear and not taken any responsibility for its inherent risks.


The invisibility of the threat of radioactivity is fundamental to how we perceive nuclear risk and the preventive practices we have instituted. Although the sight of nuclear structures, imposing as they are, is the cause of some anxiety, such facilities are generally kept out of view. The location of the reprocessing facilities in Hanford (USA), Rokkasho (Japan), and la Hague (France) is a revealing example of such a marginalization. At the la Hague facility, the site’s geographical conditions allow for the dilution of large amounts of liquid waste and the release into the atmosphere of large amounts of gaseous waste, in part precisely because it is a lightly populated area.

Pastures surrounding Flamanville (France), 2016, Foundation for Political Ecology

Residents of the Nord Cotentin peninsula in Normandy live the closest to nuclear sites, within a triangle that places them at 25 kilometers from the military arsenal in Cherbourg, the nuclear power plant in Flamanville, and the nuclear fuel reprocessing facility in la Hague. Workers and residents here perceive the risk of contamination and radiation on a daily basis, not to mention the risk of an accident, the consequences of which would completely overturn their lives.


At la Hague, residents use a variety of defense mechanisms to minimize the risks that press on them. They use a very vague vocabulary to designate the plant as a way to make it disappear from their landscape and direct, visual line of sight. Such dissimulation strategies, conscious and not, reveal a true desire to deny the reality of the nuclear site’s proximity and the constant presence of its accompanying risks. The impossibility of protecting oneself fully against them pushes local residents to create psychic environments that allow them to abstract this reality and thus to live with it. What else should they do?


The normalization & trivialization of risk: living with radioactivity

The current system of protecting populations against radioactivity relies on hypotheses formulated using a knowledge of the risks of radioactivity that was drawn from the epidemiological study of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. This same system sets the exposure limits for workers in the nuclear industry, but these protocols do not include any monitoring of “weak” and ongoing exposures.

The epidemiological study of the accident at Chernobyl could also have contributed to our knowledge of the risks of radioactivity, but no such program was ever carried out after this catastrophe. Operators instead try to combat the risk of accidents and radioactivity-induced pathologies by using a very detailed series of preventive measures and regulated procedures.


At nuclear sites, particularly “in the zone,” meaning within the plant perimeter, where radioactive levels reach harmful thresholds, each practice is conditioned by a set of specifications that seeks to minimize the contamination and radiation of the individuals present and thus to protect workers from the health consequences of radioactivity.

While this normalization of practices prevents a number of pathologies that a prolonged excessive exposure or a lack of protection would cause, it also becomes a way to get workers to accept these risks. It rationalizes a level of risk that could be fatal or pathogenic. It persuades workers to run this risk, that they can protect against it and live with it, and ultimately control it.

The controls, regulations, and technical means for preventing contamination or radiation have made the nuclear industry a very reassuring one. One of the main arguments workers use to discredit the nuclear risk is: “Driving your car every day is more dangerous.” Nevertheless, these regulations only control the risk that “weak” doses of radiation may pose to workers and their loved ones.

In June 2015, initial results were released for an epidemiological study of mortality among workers in the nuclear power industry. Coordinated by the International Center for Cancer Research, the report, known as the Inworks Study, provides evidence of the existence of a relationship between the risk of leukemia and exposure to ionizing radiation. In particular, it showed that one could observe this relationship even in ongoing exposure to weak doses of radiation, as occurs in professional exposures.

In October 2015, a second part of this study confirmed the relationship between cancers other than leukemia and professional exposure to ionizing radiation.

The Externalization of Professional Risk

France’s nuclear industry was construed as the flagship of the country’s modern industry. At the end of the 1970s and in the 1980s, EDF was a government enterprise in full expansion that recruited and trained the vast numbers of technical and engineering personnel needed to manage the country’s fleet of nuclear reactors day in and day out.


Today, though, an increasing portion of nuclear workers are employed through intermediary contracts as “subcontractors,” “service providers,” or “collaborators.” The particularly precarious conditions and the vulnerability to the health risks that these workers face are everyone’s business, as the quality of their work has a decisive impact on the safety of our nuclear facilities.

Power shutdowns : Power shutdowns involve a stoppage in the production of electricity that lasts between 1 and 3 months. This may occur at least once a year for simple stoppages and once a decade for the ten-year inspections. This is when maintenance operations such as the inspection of the entire facility and the replacement of the reactor fuel take place.

Maintenance operations during power shutdowns require a higher than average number of workers. The duration of these power shutdowns heavily impact the production cost of the entire fleet of reactors; one day of work stoppage at a reactor translates into a loss of roughly one million euros for the operator.

Between the end of the 1980s and the end of the 1990s, as the first professional pathologies began to emerge, especially those tied to asbestos, EDF began to resort more and more to subcontracting. The spreading of this contractual form led the company to outsource up to 80% of all its power shutdown maintenance work, a decision that the CGT, the network’s main union, described as “political.” The number of subcontractors is currently estimated at 22,000, which almost equals the number of EDF employees working in the nuclear sector.


With an eye to profitability and competitiveness and in an attempt to reduce the cost of producing nuclear electricity, the time that reactors remain offline has gradually been reduced. This has resulted in increased pressure on workers and a reduction in the quality of the controls of the maintenance actions performed during the power shutdowns during the annual and ten-year inspections.

Work by “subcontractors” has thus become essential to the proper working of France’s nuclear power plants, and it is set to increase under EDF’s “Great Streamlining,” an especially large project that is supposed to bring France’s reactors up to code to the post-Fukushima level of safety required by the ASN. This will increase the need for labor in the next few years.

The main consequence of this division of tasks between EDF employees and “service providers” is the fracturing of the overall comprehension of the reactor’s operation, one that is no longer the exclusive knowledge of a uniform personnel that is always present during operations.


This itinerant labor force that goes from site to site does not benefit from the experience that the personnel dedicated to the reactors’ daily operation has. At the same time, EDF’s employees are relieved of performing a series of tasks that are indispensable for the reactor’s proper operation. The result is the deterioration of working conditions for all workers involved.

The outsourcing of certain technical knowledge also sheds doubt on the employees’ ability to react in the case of an incident. Conversely, one can hardly expect the total selflessness necessary for reacting in a Fukushima-type emergency setting from subcontractors.


“In terms of dosimetry, the shutdowns are shorter, but the doses are higher. For example, I recently worked a shutdown at Bugey. I was there for fifteen days. This is an old plant with a high dosimetry. In fifteen days I got 500 milli [ed –mSv], which is a monthly dose [and a quarterly dose under the new regulations]. Because the shutdowns are shorter, we work more precisely and, therefore, the dosimetry is more concentrated. The radioactive test that you are supposed to do once a week here gets done every few days. So you take more or less time. I think they need more inspectors precisely to reduce the doses. There are even some circuits where they wonder whether they should inspect them, because the dosimetries are too high. For example, at Bugey – maybe it’s a special case, who knows – there were four or five individuals who suffered internal contamination during the shutdown and another twenty who went to the infirmary due to contamination. This was posted. Going to work in these conditions, knowing that there are accidents like that… Well, you do it because you have to work, but it’s not fun.” (Marc, inspector working on a limited-time employment contract, 33 years old). Employees on an unlimited-time contract say “don’t go” when there are too many big risks or when they have already “gotten their dose.” The ability to refuse depends on the guarantees employees feel they have not to be forced out of their jobs.

From the book by Annie Thébeaud-Mony, The Nuclear Industry, subcontracting and servitude, INSERM-EDK, Paris, 2000, page 92.


Widespread recourse to subcontracting also represents a way to outsource the social and health risk, an “outsourcing of the contamination.” These temporary workers in fact perform the operations with the greatest radiation exposure: waste separation, decontamination of pools and floors, plumbing, placement of lead aprons, etc.

Forced to work under pressure and in teams to reduce their exposure times, “service providers” admit that they don’t always carry their dosimeter when they work. While EDF employees are assigned tasks outside the active radiation area when they reach the maximum recommended dose, without any change in pay, service providers instead simply lose their source of income, given their subcontractor status.

Because they do not benefit from the same labor status as EDF’s employees, or the same tests and medical supervision, it is easier to “manage” the dissimulation of work accidents for such outside participants. This partially itinerant labor force goes from one site to the next, perhaps even as a subcontractor of a subcontractor, resulting in a greater shoving off and blurring of responsibilities to an increasing number of actors.

The pathologies caused by nuclear work (cancer, leukemia, impotence) emerge over very long timeframes. Due to the frequent changes in companies created by mergers and acquisitions among EDF’s service providers, it is hard to reconstruct the professional history of the subcontractor workers, as their employment files are often impossible to locate. The acknowledgement of the professional nature of the pathologies and the company’s responsibility requires particularly costly and complex procedures that often lead to legal impasses for subcontractors. Very few of them pursue such a path; less than 10 cases of professional pathologies caused by radiation are acknowledged each year.


1st page of the French Magazine “La Gueule Ouverte” n° 49, “Nuclear will provide works” April 16 1975, ETOPIA.

Is the Lack of Recognition of the Risk to the General Population the Price of Nuclear?

Le prix du nucléaire ?

Outside the particularly exposed sphere of nuclear workers, the entire population living around a nuclear site and beyond is also affected by this risk.

Many questions have been raised about the health effects of nuclear waste. Some epidemiological studies have emphasized the increased risk of child leukemia close to nuclear power plants, as in Germany (KiKK – Study of the German Child Cancer Register), or around the plant in la Hague. In reality, we lack the models to analyze this risk properly, which is, moreover, not limited to this rare pathology. The disputes that have surrounded the results obtained in the Cotentin area and the follow-up by the Local Channel Information Commission testify to the difficulties that institutions have in recognizing it.

The minimization of the risk particularly concerns nuclear accidents and their consequences. Extremely limited and often poorly available amounts of information are provided to the closest populations, meaning those who live within a radius of a few kilometers. However, the officially recognized accident scenarios for establishing emergency intervention plans to protect these populations involve filtered, “controlled” spillages that are not nearly at the same level as what occurred in the catastrophes at Chernobyl and Fukushima.

In April 2016 ANNCLI, the National Association of Local Information Committees and Commissions, and ACRO, the Association for Radiation Monitoring in the West, sounded the alarm on the current assessment of nuclear risk in France. The two reports published by these entities deplored that the fact that the serious accidents of Chernobyl and Fukushima have not prompted much reform of the measures to protect people and property in the event of a nuclear accident. ANCCLI demanded a thorough revision of the scope of the Particular Intervention Plans, known as PPIs, for nuclear installations, suggesting that the emergency plans be extended to a radius of 80 km.

For example, the PPIs in France provide for the protection of the potentially affected populations through iodine prophylaxis and possibly evacuation, depending on the seriousness of the accident, for an area limited to 2-10 km from the installation (20 km since April 26, 2016, according to announcements made during the 4th environmental conference). The extent of protection essentially considers the first 24-48 hours of an accident, but it currently does not consider accidental leaks over a longer timeframe and for a distance greater than 10 km.

However, according to the working group ATHLET – created by the authorities in charge of protecting against radiation (HERCA) and nuclear security (WENRA) in Europe – a nuclear accident comparable to the one at Fukushima would require evacuation measures up to a 20 km radius and protection up to approximately 100 km. Such measures would also involve the dispensing of stable iodized tablets.

Considering the population density over such distances in France, these measures would involve a much greater number of people than those living around the plants at Chernobyl and Fukushima. For example, more than one million people live in a 30 km radius around the Fessenheim and Bugey plants.



The Normalization & Trivialization of the Consequences of an Accident

Once an accident occurs, given that the level and extent of the contamination are likely to go well beyond what everybody has envisioned, the same logic of trivialization seems to apply. Preventive measures similar to the ones in place within the nuclear sites would govern the life of area residents, as in the rural zones close to Fukushima.


These constraining measures, which the SAGE program has implemented in Belarus, seek to reduce exposure to ambient radioactivity and thereby allow people to live in radiated areas. Ranging from people’s food regimes to areas to be avoided, and even extending to the positioning of individuals and furniture within the home, these measures rationalize every aspect of daily life in relation to the radioactivity in an effort to minimize exposure and radiation, and ultimately to create a semblance of normalcy.

The establishment of maximum exposure levels and the associated regulation of daily life in potentially radiated areas is profoundly ambiguous. On the one hand, it attempts to reduce the exposure of the populations affected by the contamination and radiation, but on the other, it encourages people to stay rather than go, transferring the responsibilities and constraints to them. Through such measures, the state cynically reduces its cost of managing such accidents, for which it largely exonerates the nuclear industry, relieving it of a very serious moral and financial responsibility.

Note de Sezin TOPÇU pour la Fondation de l’Ecologie Politique – Mai 2016




The Paris Convention, signed in 1960 and implemented into French law on May 16, 1968, limits the financial responsibility of operators in case of an accident to a sum that was recently raised to 700 million euros, a laughable amount, considering the cost of a nuclear accident on French soil, which the IRSN recently estimated at between 50 and 240 billion euros for a country like France.