English version – French Nuclear scientist turned anti-nuclear voice explains the industry’s history in France
Veteran nuclear scientist explains the history of nuclear plants in France: “Nuclear energy is dangerous, and so are those who deal with it.” https://reporterre.net/Le-nucleaire-est-dangereux-et-ceux-qui-s-en-occupent-tout-autant
“Nuclear energy is dangerous, and so are those who deal with it”
State ” undermined from within “, ” betrayal ” of the PS … Bernard Laponche spent almost his entire life fighting against the atom. Pillar of the antinuclear, he tells today behind the scenes of this sector.
You are reading the first part of a major interview with Bernard Laponche. The second part is here .
Bernard Laponche (84 years old) is a polytechnic engineer, physicist by training. A former nuclear engineer at the Atomic Energy Commission ( CEA ) and adviser to the Minister of the Environment Dominique Voynet, he is now an international consultant in the fields of energy and energy efficiency and a member of the associations Global Chance and Shared energy. Since the 1970s, he has been a pillar of anti-nuclear struggles in France.
Reporterre — How did you get into the nuclear sector ?
Bernard Laponche — I was born in 1938 in Alençon. I grew up in Marseille and studied there at the Lycée Thiers before entering the École polytechnique in Paris in 1957. At the end of the two years of school, my physics teacher, Louis Leprince-Ringuet, m I was advised to work in the mathematical physics department of the Atomic Energy Commission ( CEA ) in Saclay.
I entered it in 1961. It was perfecting calculation methods for nuclear reactors, in connection with experiments carried out at Marcoule and then at Cadarache. I worked in the group, for which I then took responsibility, of the natural uranium graphite gas reactors ( UNGG ), the first EDF power plants of the 1960s. I ended this phase with a doctor of science thesis on the properties of plutonium.
It was interesting work. I was pronuclear by profession. I was totally unaware of what concerned the waste, the radioactivity, I had never asked myself the question of the risks. We didn’t talk about it. There were people working on these issues, but it was very compartmentalized.
Was there a reflection at the CEA on military nuclear ?
Charles de Gaulle took the decision to manufacture the atomic bomb in 1945. He created the CEA for both civil and military nuclear. The first UNGG reactors and the reprocessing plant, built at Marcoule, were used to produce the plutonium needed for the bomb. When the decision to make the bomb was made official in 1954, the project had already made good progress, despite the reluctance of many scientists like Frédéric Joliot-Curie. Military activities were concentrated in the Military Applications Directorate ( DAM ) which had several centres.
Where was the civil nuclear program when you arrived at the CEA ?
We began the construction of the first EDF power plants in the UNGG sector : the Chinon 1 reactor, which started up at the very beginning of the 1960s, followed by five others in Chinon, Saint-Laurent and Bugey.
In 1969, the decision was taken to switch to the enriched uranium and pressurized water ( REP or PWR ) sector, by buying the American Westinghouse license which dominated the world market. This caused a crisis at the CEA , with layoffs. It was then that I became interested in nuclear policy.Bernard Laponche: “ May 68 in Saclay was decisive for me. » © Mathieu Genon/Reporterre
Nuclear power is often presented as an area of French excellence. However, we chose an American technology…
French teams from the CEA were also working on PWR reactors , particularly for submarines. However, the choice was made to turn to the Westinghouse license. Thus the first reactors of 900 megawatts ( MW ), then the reactors of the Messmer program of 1974, are American models. French excellence is largely overrated, even if the license was subsequently Frenchified, with quite a few setbacks, as evidenced by the EPR construction sites .
This event gave you the opportunity to discover the less brilliant aspects of the sector…
May 68 in Saclay  was decisive for me. Not that nuclear was discussed there, but because I played a new militant role for me which certainly decided the continuation of my activities within the union CFDT of the CEA .
During the 1969-70 crisis, the CEA ‘s CFDT realized the extent to which knowledge was compartmentalized and worked to decompartmentalize it. Information booklets have been produced: on nuclear technology and safety, on radioactivity, nuclear fuel industries, waste and risks for workers, etc. They had extraordinary success. The management even congratulated us. We drew a book from it, Nuclear power in France (Le Seuil, 1975).
“ From 1970, I became a nuclear critic. “Bernard has gone mad”, said my colleagues. »
I was then a permanent member of the union from 1973 to 1976. At the La Hague plant (Manche), I went down into the basements with workers equipped with spacesuits so as not to come into contact with plutonium and to develop cancer  . They risked their lives, several had serious consequences.
So that from 1970, I became a nuclear critic. Much to the surprise of my colleagues, who considered me “ a competent engineer ” . ” Bernard has gone mad , “ they seemed to consider. Nuclear was great ! At the time, there had never been a major accident. There had indeed been a serious accident at Windscale , in England, but it had not been rumored.
Didn’t this marginalization cost you ?
Honestly, no. I found a completely different environment, where I felt much more comfortable. I found friends, comrades — this word that I hated at Polytechnique and whose meaning I understood in May 68: the militant milieu, associations, the union…Bernard Laponche: “ The municipalities planned to host the power stations were sprinkled with money. » © Mathieu Genon/Reporterre
What did the anti-nuclear movement look like in the 1970s ?
It was a criticism that came as much from scientists as from citizens and that mobilized hundreds of thousands of people. In February 1975, 400 scientists called on the population to “ refuse the installation of nuclear power stations until they have a clear awareness of the risks and consequences ” . A few months later, several of them created the Group of Scientists for Information on Nuclear Energy ( GSIEN ). Associations, such as Les Amis de la Terre and Survivre et Vivre, founded in 1970 around the mathematician Alexandre Grothendieck , have also taken up the issue.
We had invited Grothendieck for a conference at Saclay in 1972. He was a well-known, respected scientist. The room was crowded. The scientists of Saclay were mad with rage: a ” scholar “ allowed himself to say that nuclear power was dangerous in the heart of their kingdom. Management did not accept criticism. Claude Fréjacques, the director of chemistry, an honest man, told me at that time: “ You are right, nuclear power is dangerous, but the need for energy in the world is such that we must accept this danger. »
“ Nuclear is about power. »
The dispute affected the whole territory. We remember the mobilization against the power station project in Plogoff , in Finistère, between 1978 and 1981. But the Port-la-Nouvelle project, near Narbonne, also came up against very strong resistance and did not succeed. is not done either. Other EDF projects were abandoned. There was also a big strike in The Hague in 1975 against the plan to privatize this part of the CEA . The Nuclear Conference, in December 1976, brought together thousands of people in support of the workers of La Hague and in opposition to nuclear power.
How did the authorities react ?
The State and EDF have done everything to impose their projects. EDF did a mind-blowing ad about radioactivity — a poster featuring a woman in a bikini next to a Paleolithic woman who looked like a monkey, supposedly showing that natural radioactivity improved the human race. He transported people by Caravelle plane to take them to visit the site of the first Fessenheim reactor. Or, in La Hague, the CEA made people believe that the project was a household appliance factory… around the Bure laboratoryfor the study of the burial of nuclear waste.For Bernard Laponche, François Mitterrand ” betrayed his word “. © Mathieu Genon/Reporterre
This period was also marked by the death of activist Vital Michalon , killed by the police during a demonstration in 1977 against the Creys-Malville power station (Isère). It was terrible, absolutely incredible police violence. The state had already decided that if you hit on a struggle from the start, it had an effect—this is what it reproduced later in Bure.
Legislative elections were held in 1978.
We expected a lot from these elections. The Friends of the Earth and the CFDT had launched a national petition against nuclear power and for a change in energy policy. François Mitterrand and practically all the leaders of the PS signed it. The program of the Socialist Party, with Paul Quilès, promised a new energy policy and above all a clear criticism of nuclear power.
“ Being familiar with nuclear power is a necessity to progress in high administration. »
The anti-nuclear fight in France was considerable, as strong as in Germany. With nevertheless a difference: in Germany, part of the government is decentralized, with leaders of the Länder who can be anti-nuclear. The national vote is partly proportional, which has allowed the Greens to occupy an important place in Parliament. Conversely, France is the world champion of centralization, which means that environmentalists have had very little influence in the National Assembly. Despite this, in 1978 – when the left lost the elections – and especially in 1981, people really believed in it, thanks to the alliance between the CFDT , environmental associations and the PS . The desire for an anti-nuclear policy or in any case with less nuclear power was strong and unanimous.Bernard Laponche: “ Senior civil servants are what I call ‘career pronuclear’. » © Mathieu Genon/Reporterre
In 1981, François Mitterrand was elected President of the Republic.
In Mitterrand’s 1981 presidential campaign, out of 100 proposals, three dealt with nuclear power: abandonment of Superphénix , no launch of construction of new nuclear power plants and a major national debate on nuclear power. He had also promised to abandon the power plant project in Plogoff.
Except for the abandonment of the power plant project in Plogoff, he betrayed his word. We felt it in the summer of 1981, a few months after the victory. I was then permanent at the CFDT confederation . We had the first meetings with the new government. Edmond Hervé was Secretary of State for Energy. A lawyer by training, he knew nothing about it. He explained to us that the relationship between the CFDT and the Socialist Party was one thing, and that the relationship between the CFDT and the socialist government was another: ” Comrade, don’t forget that you are talking to a socialist minister “ , he told me at a meeting in August…
“ The state is undermined from within ; decisions are monopolized by a small pro-nuclear group. »
A few weeks later, with a delegation from the CFDT , we met Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy. He swept away our arguments by saying that our remarks were anti-nuclear, and he concluded the interview by saying that he had nothing to do with what the Socialist Party had carried, or signed, before the election. On October 7, 1981, he delivered his speech on energy to the National Assembly. I’ve never heard anything so pro-nuclear. The method he proposed for the establishment of nuclear power stations was a real denial of democracy: “ Rest assured, ladies and gentlemen deputies, the final decision [to build a nuclear power station] will be taken by the State. »He even went to explain to all the Socialist deputies who had remained faithful to the party’s program for the legislative elections that there was no question of voting against this plan to continue the nuclear program.
At the CFDT , we understood that it was over. The reversal had not even waited for the turn of rigor. Interviewed in a documentary broadcast years later, Marcel Boiteux, former director of EDF from 1967 to 1987, revealed: ” A few days before his election, Mr. Mitterrand received me and said to me, ‘Leave me Plogoff, I will assure you the rest” . It ‘s awful ! The state continued the nuclear program and built far too many reactors.
How do you explain this betrayal of the Socialist Party ?
Since 1945, following de Gaulle, French politicians have been almost unanimously pro-nuclear, whether for the civilian or the military. There is no debate. Nuclear power is about power.
The state is undermined from within. Decisions are monopolized by a small pro-nuclear group of the corps des mines, to whom the State has entrusted power over all technical matters — coal, mines, iron, steel, oil, nuclear. Its members are both at the head of the corresponding administrations, companies in the sector and in ministerial cabinets. This “ elite ” is characterized by its taste for power. André Giraud, polytechnician and ” boss “ of the corps des mines, who had worked in the oil industry before becoming general administrator of the CEA, was from this point of view a type of incredible pride: in 1974, he assured you that there would be twenty Superphoenixes in the world in 2000, and 400 in 2020.Bernard Laponche: “ The counter-expertise on nuclear power is weak, but essential. » © Mathieu Genon/Reporterre
This power is hereditary, it is transmitted by strengthening. With very few exceptions, senior civil servants are what I call “ career pronuclear ” . Being acquired in the nuclear field is a necessity to progress in the high administration, including among the enarques – it is a form of allegiance. As soon as a member expresses a disagreement on the subject, he is considered seriously ill.
This experience was enough to put you off politics…
We came out of Pierre Mauroy’s speech collapsed. Some of us have decided to step aside, to stop ” fighting “ and focus on more positive things.
Already, in 1976, I had joined the energy forecasting service of the CEA , to get out of nuclear power and better understand the problem of energy in general. I also did a postgraduate thesis on foresight, based on the work of the Institute of Economists in Grenoble: they showed that we could act on energy demand and therefore criticized the French nuclear program. . I also produced a big report on this subject for the European Commission, which was shelved by the CEA (laughs) .
In 1982, I joined the French Agency for Energy Management ( AFME ), created by Mitterrand after his election. Heir to the Agency for Energy Savings ( AEE , 1974) and the Solar Energy Commission (Comes, 1978) which it integrated, it was a powerful organization, endowed with significant financial and human resources, a research program on energy efficiency and renewable energies. Its approach was very original by the creation of ” regional delegations “ in each region of France to work in the field. It was all really innovative and pioneering. The presidency was entrusted to Michel Rolant, a former agricultural worker who became number 2 of the CFDT, a remarkable leader of intelligence and will. I became its managing director in 1984. We worked like animals and obtained a fund of 5 billion francs for major energy efficiency projects, particularly in industry. It was colossal at the time.
But a year after the start of cohabitation with the government of Jacques Chirac, the president and the general manager were fired in July 1987. Two directors, Benjamin Dessus and Roland Lagarde, resigned with a bang. The workforce has been cut by a third through severance pay. Fortunately, the regional delegations were saved. It was the oil counter-shock, and Liberal ministers like Alain Madelin considered that we no longer needed to save energy and promote renewables. Moreover, the senior administration has never tolerated such an important agency being run by a trade unionist, agricultural worker and anti-nuclear moreover. Michel Rolant was replaced by a member of the corps des mines, who began by deciding to combine the positions of president and general manager.At Bernard Laponche’s, in January 2022. © Mathieu Génon/Reporterre
What did you do after your dismissal from AFME ?
With Florence Rosenstiehl, who died in September 1990, we created in February 1988 the International energy consulting office ( ICE ), on energy management. With about ten employees, some of whom came from AFME , we worked all over the world — Russia, Romania, Ukraine, Maghreb countries, Palestine, South Korea, China, etc. — to raise awareness of energy efficiency and renewable energies. We created in December 1993 in Palestine the Energy Agency, the first organization created by Yasser Arafat — a former electrician and one of the few heads of state who understood what he was being told. And we wrote and published Energy Management for a Livable World , in 1997.
You then joined the cabinet of the Minister of the Environment, the ecologist Dominique Voynet…
I became his technical adviser on energy and nuclear in 1998. I discovered how the heart of the state works. At that time, I was reading medieval history and I found in the government a perfect feudal system, with its king and its great lords. One day, at an interministerial meeting, I said that Prime Minister Lionel Jospin had understood nothing on I don’t know what subject. Immediately, Jospin’s advisers shouted out loud: “ Bernard, how can you say such a thing, apologize immediately ! The word of the master was sacred.
“ Nuclear energy is dangerous and those who deal with it are just as dangerous ! »
I quickly lost my illusions about the behavior of the elites. One day, I took part in a meeting between Dominique Voynet and François Roussely, president of EDF . For the latter, there was no problem with radioactive waste, it was enough to bury it ; as for the Blayais accident of December 1999 where we had come close to disaster, it was for him, who knew nothing about it, an incident of no importance. His answers were worthy of the coffee shop, it was hopeless and very worrying.
What were the nuclear issues then ?
Superphénix, Cigeo, the EPRs and discharges from the La Hague plant. It was real trench warfare. Dominique Voynet was alone against everyone in the government. There wasn’t much wiggle room. When we blocked interministerial, the advisers of the Prime Minister always had the last word.
Jospin kept his promise to stop Superphénix definitively. Dominique Voynet did not authorize the increase in discharges from La Hague. She put her resignation in the balance against the EPR project . Jospin, who was not a nuclear fanatic and was keen on the alliance with the Greens, resisted pressure from EDF and others and the EPR was not decided [it will be in 2006 on the site of Flamanville with the new majority] .
On the other hand, she had no choice for Bure’s laboratory project. But it yelled a lot in the months that followed the signing of the decree, especially at the Greens congress. It was necessary to explain the functioning of the institutions and to say that she could not have done otherwise, except to resign.
What conclusions do you draw from this experience in government ?
It reinforced my convictions: nuclear power is dangerous and those who deal with it are just as dangerous ! They are madmen who defend nuclear power at all costs and are ready to lie for that !Bernard Laponche, at home, January 14, 2022. © Mathieu Génon / Reporterre
Seeing that everything was locked down at the top of the state must have affected you too…
Of course. When I was younger and I was active in 1968 at the CEA , the physicist Anatole Abragam told me: “ With such ideas, Mr. Laponche, you have to know how to go the distance. I ‘ve been holding on for half a century !
In the 1970s, the CFDT was at the forefront of criticism of our ” civilization “ . She had published The Damage of Progress , a follow-up to the Meadows report The Limits to Growth . She regularly published small books on alternative and renewable energies and on energy saving. When I see that these elements were already on the table fifty years ago and that we are still at the same point, I am angry. We missed the mark. We continued to develop the cars, we built anything, and we are paying for it today. As we face global warmingmore and more threatening, we say to ourselves that we have to hurry, but we realize that it is very difficult, because we have continued in this momentum of great nonsense.
“ The battle against nuclear power is bitter. »
Despite this, we continue this alert work. With perhaps a little pride, at least a will to remain upright. In 1992, scientists and engineers created the Global Chance association to produce independent counter-expertise on energy, climate and societal issues. I quickly joined them.
What is the weight of counter-expertise on nuclear today ?
It is weak, but essential. It is mainly supported by five associations: GSIEN , Global Chance, NégaWatt, Criirad and Acro  , in cooperation with Greenpeace, FNE , Sortir du Nucléaire and local associations on nuclear sites. The last of the Mohicans, when you think of the 400 scientists opposed to the Messmer plan in 1974 !
Today, very few academics dare to confront nuclear power publicly, for fear of being discredited by their management or blocked in their careers. Conversely, EDF has considerable means of misleading pro-nuclear advertising. In schools, the influence of the nuclear power system is very strong. EDF , the CEA and other organizations and companies finance establishments, labs and theses. This situation is specific to France ; abroad, notably in England, Germany and the United States, the university environment is freer.Bernard Laponche: “ The adversary is an extraordinarily powerful fortress. » © Mathieu Genon/Reporterre
Who is your counter-expertise for ?
At first, the association targeted the administration and power. But we ended up realizing that it was illusory. Since the mid-2000s, we have mainly addressed ourselves to citizens, activists and associations. I dare to believe that our work strengthens them.
You are 84 years old. How do you see the succession ?
We critical nuclear researchers are getting older. There is clearly a lack of transmission between generations. I am sometimes surprised to realize how many young people know neither the recent history of struggles and knowledge, nor the reality of the facts on the risks of nuclear power and its cost.
The battle against nuclear power is bitter. The adversary is an extraordinarily powerful fortress. The advertising offensive touting against all evidence the relevance of nuclear power for the fight against climate change , carried by hundreds of communicators, unfortunately works.
The counter-expertise is essential, but insufficient. We must strengthen the movements on the ground, support local struggles in Bure against the burial of radioactive waste, on the sites of the power stations against the extension of aging reactors, in La Hague against the project for a new pool and reprocessing, in Fessenheim so that Alsace comes out of nuclear power definitively, etc. Nuclear power affects people’s lives everywhere. The anti-nuclear movement is non-violent, but as soon as it takes on any importance, it is immediately repressed by the state.
The appeal of eight AgroParisTech students during the graduation ceremony on April 30, denouncing ” a training that globally pushes to participate in the ongoing social and ecological devastation “ and ” let’s desert, let’s not wait “ , is a message bearer of immense hope.
• The rest of the interview with Bernard Laponche : ” Manufacturers are in denial, politicians know nothing about it “