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The Nuclear Race to the Bottom

One thing that often is forgotten in discussions about nuclear energy utilization is that it involves quite a lot of very dirty and dangerous work. According to Bill Mollison, Uranium mining companies in Australia often employed Aborigines as miners, knowing that they would not go to court should they develop cancer. The situation in the U.S. was fairly similar, with the Navajo Indians in the role of the miners (1).

Further down the chain, there is chemical processing of Uranium ore to “Yellow Cake” (Uranium oxide), which then undergoes isotope separation and is turned into nuclear fuel. While I would have an interesting personal story to share about Yellow Cake production in Germany, let us skip this step and look a bit further down the chain. The most interesting step in the life of nuclear fuel is perhaps when it is subjected to an environment in which fission occurs in a controlled way inside a nuclear reactor. Here, nuclear fuel becomes seriously radioactive.

Clearly, nuclear reactors are very complicated machines that need a lot of maintenance effort. Who are the people who do the dangerous tasks that involve serious contamination risks inside nuclear power plants? I was quite amazed when I first learned that professional divers can specialize in nuclear diving — which means you will end up diving and doing underwater welding in environments such as spent fuel pools (2). Who is doing such work?

The German-French TV station “arte” investigated this question and recently broadcast a documentary where they highlighted the technicians working in the nuclear industry doing some really dangerous work for amazingly low pay. It is not too surprising that this documentary focuses on the French nuclear industry, given that roughly one out of three European nuclear reactors is located in France. This is related to the geological situation in France: unlike Germany, the country did not have noteworthy amounts of readily accessible coal. (Curiously, this is also the reason why some notable early solar energy pioneers were French — such as Augustin Mouchot.)

The German translation of this documentary has been uploaded to YouTube and can be watched here.

In order to make some of this amazing material more accessible, I translated a few key scenes of this documentary — see below. I want to point out, however, that I have not spent any time on checking the veracity of the claims made in it, and as I am not a professional translator, and translating from the German translation of the French original, it is likely that other errors have slipped in as well. Corrections are hence very welcome. Captions are time stamps and come with URLs that directly forward to the corresponding location.

Today’s utilization of nuclear power no longer has anything to do whatsoever with the prevailing attitude when we went nuclear. Back then, this was about technology that should supply all households with affordable electricity. The prime objective hence was to serve the public.

Since the privatization of the energy market, it is all about making profit. That is something entirely different.

I have been looking into this since the late 80s — back then, reactor blocks were switched off for checks for two or two-and-a-half months. Today, such a check only lasts ten days, or at most three weeks. Only the 10-year checks are done more thoroughly. I think this shortening of checkup breaks is telling.

I have been talking to workers for some hundreds of hours. One thing became clear: the deeper one climbs in the hierarchy of subcontractors doing maintenance works, down to those working right at the site, the greater the concern whether that sort of maintenance can really ensure the safety of the installation. — [14:12]

In France — like everywhere in Europe — 4/5th of all maintenance jobs are outsourced to subcontractors. 40% of their employees are migrant workers, or so called “nuclear nomads”, working in reactors once they are shut off.

On average, they each travel 45000 kilometers per year on their way from one reactor to the next. They live on camping sites or in residential homes. They get paid 1200 to 1500 euro for the most ungratifying jobs. — [15:38]

The insecure employment situation forces them to not speak up. Some of them are so-called “jumpers”, doing the most dangerous tasks.

In the world of nuclear energy, many actually doubt the existence of these men.

This is the reactor core. Here a steam generator. From there, an array of pipes. What goes out over there is the secondary system. And there, there are two holes. There we enter the interior, to install sort-of flaps to close the holes. — — [16:12] [Note: if you do not watch any of the other parts, at least watch this!]

All this has to be done as fast as possible. Between 1.5 and 2 minutes, not more. It’s frightening to climb into such a dark box. In particular, you must not fall into the hole immediately in front of you — if you did, you would slide directly into the core.

We are medically supervised, and so far, everything is okay — how much longer? No clue? Let us see what things are like when I reach retirement age. But for special jobs, when you get a really fat dose, you notice. You don’t sleep well. Also the next two days. — Watch 16:51!

And unfortunately those of us who will contract cancer then cannot sue just one company — EDF — but many of them, as the corporation handed over the risk to subcontractors. Risks also can be outsourced.

I’ve worked for two companies so far, but one of them already does not exist anymore. How should I sue them should I ever get cancer? — [21:58]

(Pierre Lambert — Diver) In march 1988, I got a phone call: ‘We’ve got a job for you’.

On site, we stand in front of a marvelous swimming pool. My colleague and I still are joking about never having dived in such clean water, Cobalt blue. Actually, it was the pool in which radioactive waste cooled. Sensors are tied to us, then we dive, and as I want to get out again, the door does not open. They tell me that somewhere on my body a speck of dust must have stuck. There is a detector, and as long as you are not 100% clean, the door stays shut.

‘Monsieur Lambert — you were contaminated with Cobalt.’ ‘Is that serious? What do I have to do?’ ‘There is not much to do — you only might get leukemia.’ ‘Ok, one can’t do much — then I’ll go back home.’

You don’t feel anything — don’t feel bad, you don’t smell, no pain. Maybe it just goes away. You tell yourself: Maybe you will be one of the lucky ones.

And then, 15 years later, all of a sudden… [unintelligible] months I was crawling on all fours.

[I had difficulties getting this part] There are immune suppressants that are so heavy that you all of a sudden fall down. Nothing keeps you upright — you are a mere sack of bones. Muscles give, and you collapse like linen. You have haematoma which for months cover head and body. You look like a ghost — like someone who just back from a Concentration Camp [Literally: “Buchenwald”].

We managed to sue EDF for compensation for personal suffering. But they said that after 10 years, we would not have a claim anymore. In other words, for the nuclear industry, there are exceptions. There, after 10 years, a work accident isn’t a work accident anymore.” — [22:27]

There is a simple reason why people like Pierre Lambert don’t show up in nuclear accident statistics. Employees of subcontractors officially do not count as nuclear industry employees. It seems as if the nuclear industry was not too concerned about its employees’ health. The question remains to what extent it is concerned with the health of the public — and how it informs the public. — [25:00]

“I have done ‘non-destructive checks’ in nuclear power plants, i.e. I have used radiology, ultrasound or magnetoscopy to test surfaces but also the interior of materials such as metal or concrete for fractures.”

C.I. has worked for a subcontractor for over ten years until EDF grounded him after he talked to Journalists about the nuclear site at Chinon.

“You are supposed to test materials that are relevant for security, but they tell you to write ‘no special incidents’ in your report — regardless of whether you found a fault or not. I can witness this — it has happened to me like this. They exerted pressure on me. How does that work? Well, a reactor gets built, we enter the power plant, the so called ‘Hall of four Aces’ — where the really big valves are. Huge cocks, and they leak, totally ramshackled. We tell those in charge: ‘We are sorry, we cannot greenlight this like that.’ And they: ‘Hey — don’t make a fuss, that’s not a crack, that’s just a scratch.’ Then we: ‘Ok, maybe it really is only just a scratch — but they are after all indications of a problem, so we cannot OK it.’ They: ‘Don’t be awkward — that will cost us a day. And above it, we will get told off for that. We have to finish then-and-then, because we have to go somewhere else. And furthermore, we don’t have spare parts anyway. So, if you report a crack here, we have to screw on the very same cock anyway.’ So, we have to call our own bosses. They want us to do the checkup again. Then they show up in person and have the checkup done in front of them. The engineer responsible for plant maintenance won’t have any of this and also joins in. You see — hours pass, we have done the check four or five times by now, and ten or maybe fifteen people are dancing around us like Indians. Then they say: ‘Stop it — you are over-zealous, there is no fault.’ But there are people — like me — who are stubborn, so I say ‘no, I won’t sign it off like that’ — knowing full well that another colleague will come along and sign off the damn paper: ‘no special incidents’. I don’t do that.”


  1. Navajo Justice Page:,
    see also the Wikipedia article “Uranium mining and the Navajo people
  2. See e.g., or, or this advertisement video:


  1. The more you hear about industry the less this surprises me. It should shock the shit out of me but it is just capitalism at work. Whats a few migrant workers when cash can be made eh? Not very much.

  2. Thomas this is disturbing. The problem with nuclear is that there is so little margin for error and when it goes wrong, it goes horribly wrong.

  3. Chris,

    yes it is disturbing. The problem really is that nuclear sounds great on paper — until one takes a close look at how our civilization actually deals with it.

    Here’s one scary story I recently came across – Dave Lochbaum from the Union of Concerned Scientists tells the story of how he ended up at UCS after a fairly conventional career in the nuclear industry:

    To sum this up: in 1992, when working as a consultant, he studied one of the U.S. BWRs (A BWR/4 reactor, but with Mark-2 containment rather than the Mark-1 containment of the earlier Fukushima-type reactors). Actually, he found a major problem with the station’s design. He writes:

    The design calculation for the reactor building ventilation system considered heat emitted by operating motors, heat emanating from piping filled with hot water, (…). Collectively, these heat sources amounted to 5.2 million BTUs per hour. (…).

    The cooling system for the reactor building ventilation system was sized to accommodate this amount of heat removal, thus ensuring that emergency equipment would not overheat and fail.

    But the design heat load from irradiated fuel stored in the spent fuel pool was 12.6 million BTUs per hour, meaning the spent fuel could emit up to that much heat. Under normal operation, that heat would be carried out of the building by the cooling system. However, safety analyses assume the spent fuel pool cooling system will not be operating during a reactor accident. In that case there would be no heat added to the reactor building from the spent fuel pool pump motors and piping, but without cooling the spent fuel pool water would heat up, boil, and release heat into the reactor building air. A lot of heat—considerably more heat than that present in the reactor building from all other sources, and far more than the cooling system could handle.


    Hence, a reactor accident would lead to a spent fuel pool accident. And the boiling spent fuel pool would create conditions inside the reactor building that would disable the emergency equipment needed to cool the reactor core.

    What worries me is what happened when he tried to report this and other problems he and his colleague found with the station’s design (emphasis added by me):

    The NRC failed to take our report seriously. They didn’t even read it. We had attached all the relevant correspondence between us and the plant’s owner to the report. I made two-sided copies of many of the 35 attachments to save postage costs. But when I took the original report to a copy shop, they mistakenly made single-sided copies and left out every other page. The NRC dismissed our concerns at Susquehanna and every other similarly designed nuclear plant without even noticing that roughly half of the report was missing.

    I also consider this bit highly relevant, which is about the potential career implications of finding and drawing attention to unwelcome security problems with nuclear infrastructure (again, emphasis added by me):

    I started getting calls from both colleagues and strangers asking if I’d champion their safety concerns. I distinctly recall one man telling me, “I don’t want to raise this safety concern and put my job on the line, but since your career is already toast, I thought you’d raise it for me.” I still had a job in the industry at the time, but I appreciated his point. Raising safety concerns in the nuclear industry invokes the gangplank more often than it involves the corporate ladder.

    If there is one thing I am very sure about, then this is that punishing the bearer of superficially bad news certainly is not the way how nuclear safety should be handled! (Actually, I think one has to be very confused about some quite fundamental things to regard an “oops, we have found a major security problem before this could give rise to a catastrophic accident” type insight as “bad news” – I’d say that this is very good news.)

    So, a number of things seem very wrong at the cultural level in the nuclear industry.

  4. Here in the UK the anti-nuclear cause has been radically undermined due to George Monbiot’s pro-nuclear campaign. He is also a contributor to this site…

  5. Here in the UK, the biggest concern about nuclear technology I have is that the present UK education system comes nowhere near developing some of the essential habits for prospective nuclear engineers – in particular the sort of defensive thinking with safety and security in mind which one needs for that sort of work.

    On this, I have a professional opionion (but it might not coincide with that of my employer).

  6. Hi Robin

    Although I appreciate your anti-nuclear stance, I don’t think that we should write off absolutely everything a person (like George) says on all topics, just because we don’t agree with him/her in one particular area. For example, if a contributor sent me an article for posting that was perfectly aligned with permaculture in one area, and also sent me at the same time an article that was wholly out of alignment with permaculture in another area, then I’d put the first post up, and not the second. Not all of us are right in all areas all the time, so I think it’s a case of separating the wheat from the chaff, as it were.

    I would go further to say that George has valid concerns that are good to discuss. I personally don’t think nuclear is the way to go, but at the same time, if we (society) don’t get serious about transitioning to a low-carbon future, and we instead want to continue with a world of high energy consumption, then it may well be that nuclear can be the lesser of our few evil energy options. (I’m not saying it is – but it’s certainly a valid topic for debate, which George is attempting to do.)

    My position is to take our present situation, with ALL its parameters and consider what’s the logical response. For me the logical response is to find a way to work with real time sunlight, with biology, in particular. Unless we want the world, or ourselves as a race, to expire (sooner or later), we need to work with closed loop energy and waste systems, and I don’t know any on this planet outside of natural biological processes. All our industrial systems consume more energy than they put back into the system.

    But, the reality is that most of society are not even considering a move back to land-based economies, with all the land redistribution aspects (almost always only occuring with bloodshed…) and all the associated education that would need to be fast-tracked to make it work (education in sustainable agriculture, natural buildings, clothes-making, the invisible structures of building local communities, etc. etc.).

    If a decent proportion of the world are not taking this need seriously, then we’re back to deliberating which is the lesser of the evils before us – i.e., the pros and cons of several new coal fired power stations per week worldwide, or nuclear. Neither is pretty.

    Perhaps George has given up on people thinking objectively. One of his recent pieces says:

    Those who, on the other hand, advocate a return to a land-based economy and the abandonment of industrial society find themselves in conflict with the desires of most of humanity, in both rich and poor nations. They have produced no convincing account of how people could be persuaded to turn their backs on manufactured products, advanced infrastructure and public services. — Our Crushing Dilemmas

    I think it’s more than a fair comment myself. As much as I could wish otherwise, people are very slow to see reality. Just as a mere fraction of the population of ‘developed’ nations are realising their ‘American dream’ is turning into an unsustainable nightmare, the ‘developing’ world (the bulk of the world’s population) is shouting, “we want a slice too!”. And, worse, it’s our fault – we’ve been selling them ‘the dream’ on billboards, internet and all kinds of other advertising and marketing, for decades.

    I don’t see a future in anything but people taking permaculture seriously, which is why I’ve invested all my energies in trying to raise its profile over the last several years. If the concept does not snowball and become a widespread movement, then we will all fail, and we may well wish we’d considered the ‘less bad’ options that George is trying to debate.

    For me, looking at nuclear and coal, wind, solar, etc., is a form of defeatism – we’re deciding that people will never give up on their dream of a high-energy lifestyle. Although a realist at heart, I don’t give up on idealism. If someone isn’t looking at the most logical reality-based solutions to our pressing problems, then who will? Should we cast such solutions off just because we think nobody will take up the call? No, I’d prefer to keep putting logic up in front of people, and hope that others will join me in doing the same. With enough people gaining a holistic understanding of our situation, then we can skirt right around the ‘less bad’ patching of society strategy, to implement real and lasting solutions.

    But, if this call is not taken seriously, then postponing catastrophe, by debating which are the ‘less bad’ options, is certainly less bad than not debating at all.

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