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Collection « Les sciences sociales contemporaines »

Livre jaune sur la société du plutonium. Yellow Book on the Plutonium Society (1981)

Une édition électronique réalisée à partir du livre de l'Association pour l'Appel de Genève (APAG), Livre jaune sur la société du plutonium. Geneva Appeal Association, Yellow Book on the Plutonium Society. Introduction par Ivo Rens, Président de l'APAG, Neuchâtel, Suisse : Les Éditions de la Baconnière, 1981, 328 pp. Une édition numérique réalisée par Marcelle Bergeron, professeure retraitée de l'enseignement à l'École polyvalente Dominique-Racine de Chicoutimi. [Livre mis en ligne, dans Les Classiques des sciences sociales, avec l'autorisation de M. Ivo Rens, professeur honoraire, Faculté de droit, Université de Genève, accordée le 28 mars 2011.]

[p. 10]


O foolish people ... which have eyes, and see not ; which have ears, and hear not.
Jeremiah, 5, 21.

There is little doubt that the technological risks inherent in the Super Phoenix fast-breeder reactor project at Creys-Malville (France) are far greater than those involved in other developments in civilian industry, apart from reprocessing plants for spent nuclear fuel. The most serious accident likely to occur in this power station would cause first of all several thousand immediate deaths in France and Switzerland, followed by the slow death from leukaemia or other forms of cancer of several million people throughout Europe and finally the radioactive contamination of all or part of the Rhone basin, thus making an area of Europe permanently uninhabitable ; quite apart from the unspecifiable damage to the genetic heritage of survivors.

Whether the likelihood of such a disaster is remote or even infinitely remote is therefore of little importance ; how, indeed, could its likelihood be assessed without experimental basis ? It is a risk which governments should on no account accept without the explicit agreement of duly informed citizens and which our generation should not impose on generations to come unless it is absolutely necessary.

We have no right to say, with Louis XV of France, "Après moi le déluge ! " We have no right to squander the riches of the earth – and even Earth itself – and it is our duty to transmit them to, and if possible to increase them for, future generations.

These are the main reasons that prompted the undersigned to approach some of his colleagues at Geneva University in 1976 and to propose that they should draw up a joint declaration. Although [La suite à la p. 12. JMT] [p. 12] their reactions were unfailingly courteous, many of them were sceptical. But then in rapid succession came first the statement against Super Phoenix by a number of French physicists and trade unionists, the "Open Letter from 1,300 [1] scientists of the Geneva region to the French, Italian and German governments which are responsible for the construction of the Super Phoenix fast-breeder reactor at Creys-Malville, France, and to the Swiss government which is involved by its geographical proximity" (emphasis added) ; and then the first Declaration of the Bellerive Group ; these were all excellent initiatives and their texts are fully reproduced in the following pages. Our initial relief was however very quickly followed by concern, and subsequently by perplexity, given the passivity of the political authorities which are supposed to be responsible.

In the spring of 1978 we therefore contacted various colleagues and friends again. This time reactions were distinctly positive, with a few exceptions. The particular responsibility of academics and other intellectuals in the face of what now appeared to be not merely an inacceptable risk but also a decisive step towards actually establishing a type of society incompatible with the values still upheld by our pluralistic democracies prompted us to launch an Appeal against the Super Phoenix fast-breeder reactor and in favour of organizing a wide public and interdisciplinary debate on the choice between the plutonium society and soft technologies.

Meanwhile the number of colleagues and friends interested in the project had almost trebled. We all worked together to settle the final wording of the Geneva Appeal. The names and professions of the thirty members of the Organizing Committee of the Geneva Appeal, which we jointly constituted, were published with the Appeal itself. They are listed below as an annex to the text of the Appeal, which was adopted on 2 October 1978, but was only made public at a press conference one month later, on 6 November 1978. In the meantime some of the most active members of the Organizing Committee had created on 21 October 1978 the Geneva Appeal Association, which immediately decided to make the text widely available in the three official languages of Switzerland (German, French and Italian), as well as in English and Spanish, and to collect signatures throughout Europe.

But what precisely is the plutonium society ? we were sometimes asked with a touch of irony. And why make it the scapegoat of [p. 14] modern society, which suffers from many other ills, such as the increasing gap between rich and poor countries, the dangers of computers and genetic manipulation, the various forms of pollution, not to mention the spread of torture and totalitarianism ?

The pat answer to the second question by the ruling science of economics – and God knows it rules ! – is that there is no hope of salvation without growth, and that growth can only survive the oil crisis through the exploitation not only of fissile nuclear fuel by means of slow-neutron nuclear reactors, which are now considered conventional, but also of fertile nuclear fuel by means of fast-neutron nuclear reactors. Fast-neutron reactors, so we were told, have the incredible advantage of breeding, i.e. of producing more fissile fuel than they actually consume, through the transmutation of uranium 238 into plutonium 239. And does the logic of our industrial civilization not imply that we use ever-increasing energy to obtain ever-increasing power ? Thus has Scientism usurped the name of Science.

Hence the relevance of describing any "advanced" thermoindustrial society in terms of the latest source of the greatest power, i.e. plutonium, which fast-breeder reactors are already producing in the USSR, France and Scotland, pending the construction of Super Phoenix in France and Kalkar in the Federal Republic of Germany. Hence also the relevance of questioning this rush for progress, which may well be incompatible with the continuation of the human adventure. Even supposing that solutions could be found to all the technological problems inherent in nuclear industry in general and fast-breeder reactors in particular ; in a world like ours, divided into opposing camps, would not the concentration in the hands of a few men of the tremendous power we are given to believe will result if not from fast breeding then at least from controlled thermonuclear fusion ensure the violent self-destruction of humanity ?

Even as we wait for this frightening nightmare to come true, the plutonium society is already threatening us ; it is threatening our children even more than ourselves, for some transuranic elements have the unfortunate tendency to lodge in their bones as they grow ; and, with our children it is threatening all our posterity because of the mutagenic effects of ionizing radiation. If you doubt it, listen to this :

On 15 April 1980, at 8.35 am., a fire destroyed both the main and the emergency electrical circuits supplying the reprocessing [p. 16] plant of La Hague (France), the keystone of fast breeding and therefore of the plutonium society itself. Only the independent circuit for the electrified security fence surrounding the plant remained in operation.

The storage vats for fission products immediately began to heat and these need not only cooling but also continuous stirring.

Failure to cool the vats would be enough to make them crack after five or six hours, according to the French trade union CFDT, or after eighteen hours according to COGEMA, commercial subsidiary of the French Atomic Energy Commission, to mention the two figures quoted by the specialized publication Nucleonics Week in its issue of 24 April 1980. The cracking of storage vats spells contamination of the environment by a mass of radioactive products incomparably greater than the few kilos released by a typical military nuclear explosive device.

Thanks to the mobile generators hurriedly brought from the nearby Cherbourg arsenal an improvised supply of electricity stopped the countdown of what would have been a major accident within about two hours, again according to Nucleonics Week.

Had this not been possible and supposing that a slight southerly wind had been blowing that day, as it was at the meteorological station of Cherbourg-Maupertus, the Channel and probably the South of England would have been heavily polluted. If, however, there had been a slight northerly wind blowing over the area, as there was on the following day, France would quite simply have lost part of Normandy, which would have been radioactively contaminated and rendered permanently uninhabitable.

It would be naive to think that an accident of this kind would have had no major political consequences, in France and beyond.

It would, moreover, require considerable ignorance of history, and especially of the history of techniques – by the way, what universities and polytechnics teach this subject ? – to believe that the electronuclear industry will not suffer accidents on a scale corresponding to its extreme concentration of energy.

Last but not least, the intoxication of power (in both senses) leads those who govern us to cover wagers of the electronuclear industry with raison d'État, thereby exposing the democratic legitimacy of our institutions to the hazards of such technological accidents.

[p. 18]

But to explain the spell that fast breeding and controlled thermonuclear fusion cast over our politicians one must understand the whole cultural context in which the knowledge is broken into little pieces and the dominant science of economics can get away with projecting growth curves into the future that can only correspond to a brief and extravagant parenthesis in the history of humanity ; and there has above all to be a complete divorce between science and conscience and a clear victory of scientific technocracy over human rights and democracy.

The plutonium society springs deep from our past and psyche, where a constant undercurrent of violence thunders. Born of what is claimed to be a conversion of the atomic genie to peaceful ends, the electronuclear industry has developed while providing an alibi for vertical and horizontal proliferation of military nuclear powers. An excellent survey of this whole process has been published by Jim Garrisson under the title From Hiroshima to Harrisburg. The Unholy Alliance, SCM Press, London, 1980. The truth of the matter is that the atomic genie has never ceased to be martial because it is based upon a scientific discipline set against a background of military efficiency, structured and divided along military lines and hampered by the existence of "classified" fields of activity, i.e. military secrets, and because nuclear industry is imposed upon civilian populations by military methods. Remember the demonstration at Brokdorf in 1976, at Malville in 1977 and at Gorleben and Plogoff in 1980. Militarization and proliferation are the two breasts of the beast. This too is the plutonium society !

In this context the steps taken by the Geneva Appeal Association may seem hopelessly inadequate... And yet, without financial means or official backing, and thanks to a handful of people fully committed to the cause, we set up a European network that enabled us to collect some 50,000 signatures, including those of several thousand academics and scientists. In the letters reproduced in this book the reader will find the names of several celebrities, to whom we express our thanks. We ourselves were particularly moved by the anonymous militants carrying out their thankless task and to whom we are principally indebted for the response received from citizens of the various European countries.

The Executive Board of the Geneva Appeal Association, strengthened by a number of new members, undertook to transmit the Geneva [p. 20] Appeal, by registered letter, through the Presidents of the Parliaments of all European countries, to the persons to whom it was actually addressed and to call upon several spiritual authorities and also the Swiss Government. In this book the reader will find the list of persons to whom these letters were addressed and facsimiles of all replies received. The least one can say is that, with very few exceptions, we were not heard.

Accordingly, even before the campaign to collect signatures had been completed, the Executive Board committed the Association to two new lines of action, namely the issue of press communiqués commenting on topical issues related to the Geneva Appeal and participation in meetings organized either by groups for or against the development of nuclear industry or by groups claiming to be neutral.

To quote but a few examples, the Geneva Appeal Association was represented in February 1979 at the conference organized in Geneva by the Bellerive Group, in October 1979 at the conference on fast breeder reactors and Europe organized by FORATOM in Lucerne, Switzerland, also in October 1979 at the world congress on alternatives and the environment held in Vienna, Austria, in December 1979 at the public debate that the Geneva Appeal Association was invited to attend as an international organization by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Brussels, in March 1980 at the seminar on the state of the electronuclear industry in Europe organized by the Swiss Association for Atomic Energy (ASPEA) in Zurich OErlikon, in June 1980 at the joint discussion organized by the Tenth International Management Symposium at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, in October 1980 at the meeting organized by the group of French senior technologists known as "X-Alternatives" in Paris, in December 1980 at the General Meeting of the Scientists' Group for Information on Nuclear Energy (GSIEN), also in Paris, and in January 1981 at the debate organized by the Mechanical and Electrical Engineers' Committee on the Environment in Salonika, Greece.

The Geneva Appeal Association is also in touch with such bodies as the World Information Service on Energy (WISE), whose headquarters are in the Netherlands, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the editorial board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in the United States, the GSIEN, mentioned above, which has published [p. 22] La Gazette nucléaire in France since 1976, the editors of The Ecologist in Britain and the leaders of Ecoropa throughout Western Europe. The Geneva Appeal Association has, moreover, decided to sponsor the nuclear energy information campaign that Ecoropa launched in 1980 with varying degrees of success in different countries. Lastly, the Geneva Appeal Association has joined the Environment Liaison Centre, which has its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

Far from us, however, the idea that we may rest on our laurels ! Those who govern us persist in following what we consider to be a catastrophic policy, but one which droves of experts and specialists, and sometimes even eminent scientists, argue is the only possible approach. But it is simply not true to say that our societies have no choke and that they must commit themselves unreservedly to electronuclear energy, and hence to fast breeders, to take the place of oil. Einstein, Newton, Galileo and a few of our other predecessors who could hardly be described as cave-dwellers would turn in their graves if they could hear the slogan "Nuclear energy or back to the cave man" It all looks as if politicians are trying to relieve the people of the industrialized countries of the burden of freedom by denying them any real choice at all.

And yet there are other policies that would enable us to achieve a progressive changeover to soft technologies and renewable forms of energy while reducing the amount we waste but not necessarily our sacrosanct level of material well-being. Extensive research in connection with these policies is being carried out in English-speaking countries, as may be seen from Amory Lovin's World Energy Strategies, Facts, Issues and Options, which appeared in 1975, Soft Energy Paths and Toward a Durable Peace, which appeared in 1977, Gerald Leach's Low Energy Strategy for the United Kingdom, which was published in 1979, and the work of Professor Barry Commoner, the author of Reflections : The Solar Transition, which appeared in The New Yorker on 23 and 30 April 1979 and of The Politics of Energy, also published in 1979. These studies prove at least that alternative solutions do exist. Then, what justification can there be in a democratic society for refusing to provide citizens with comprehensive information and the possibility of broad public debate when what is at stake is the future and survival of each and every one of us !

[p. 24]

In Europe all, or almost all, governments have adopted a stealthy policy of the fait accompli, at the same time implicating the leaders of the opposition whenever possible, and have committed, or are in the process of committing, their people to fast breeders. They will find it difficult to wash their hands of responsibility after the unprecedented disaster that awaits us.

President of the Geneva Appeal Association
1 January 1981

[1] Since then their number has increased to about 1,600.

Retour au texte de l'auteur: Jean-Marc Fontan, sociologue, UQAM Dernière mise à jour de cette page le vendredi 9 décembre 2011 8:03
Par Jean-Marie Tremblay, sociologue
professeur de sociologie retraité du Cégep de Chicoutimi.

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