France Walk Update – Week 2 – Montpellier to Pont St Esprit
After a good rest for all in Montpellier, and a refreshing dip in the Mediterranean for some, we began walking again this week with strong resolve as we enter the Rhone Valley. We’ll be walking up La Rhone past nuclear reactors, a uranium enrichment facility, nuclear research facilities and a former nuclear weapons manufacturing unit. Our commitment to a nuclear free world, a strong community of walkers and all the support we have received from around the world keeps us focused and our spirits high in one of Europe’s most nuclear intensive regions.
At Saussines, like many places we have stayed so far, we received generous support from the local community, who feed us delicious local olives, fresh juices and an onion and anchovy tart that I could probably talk about for the rest of the update if you let me (it tasted great!). In the cool of the evening we hang out in the town square talking with people, including the mayor, about our walk and the nuclear industry in Australia. We spent the night in a very picturesque park with an exercise course – though for some reason, no one wanted to try it out, I think we must be getting enough exercise walking at the moment.
At Montpezat, we stayed at another the local football field. Here we meet Jean-Louis, the local organiser who found us places to stay in this area and we were happy to walk with for a few days. It was a hot day, and those of us from the southern hemisphere are starting to really appreciate the nap after lunch. There is really not much you can do in the heat of the afternoon.
Next stay place was Russon, where we stayed in the home of local antinuclear supporter. They had a massive ground floor, where we could rest, work on computers, read and generally hang out in the cool. It was a short day walking, and we arrived in time for an impressive lunch spread with much local cheese on offer. That afternoon we started to plan our action at Marcoule, the nuclear facility of the CEA and Areva that makes Mox – a plutonium and uranium oxide fuel used in fast breeder reactors, and in a disturbing twist, older style of reactors not designed for Mox. In 2004, some of the Australian walkers travelled to the Monju reactor in Japan as part of the International Peace Pilgrimage. Here at Marcoule, we were faced with this vast nuclear complex that produces the Mox fuel, and the only other fast breeder reactor in the world – Phoenix. Fast Breeder reactors produce more plutonium than they use, are more unstable than uranium fuel and can only be cooled with liquid sodium which is highly explosively when in contact with water and spontaneously combusts when in contact with air.
In Uzes, the next day we walked into this very conservative city and made ourselves known by parking the truck on the street and waving our flags about the old square in the centre of town, beside an ancient castle. At the mayor’s office, a local government representative from the green party hosted a meeting for us. A journalist interviewed some of the international people and we all drank some cool juice, before heading out for another 10km on the road. We meet Jamal here, a generous chef who always has a smile on his face. He made dinner for us that night, helped us get supplies for our street theatre at Marcoule and popped up again as we walked over the next few days.
The next day’s walking was through some lovely oak forest, up and down hills under the watchful eye of some very old roman ruins. It was hot as usual, and the shade of trees was a welcome relief. We’ve been eating a classic French lunch each day with pain (bread), fromage (cheese), salat (lettuce) and tomate (tomato). Very enjoyable fuel for our walking!
At Laudun, we stayed at a massive gym and dance studio. Local activists made us an amazing dinner for us , and we talked together in the evening. Before bed we added the final touches to our street theatre piece for Marcoule, before the big performance in the morning. We stayed only 7km from that evil nuclear nightmare.
And so, on July 13th, we arrived at Marcoule. Besides being the sole manufacturer of Mox fuel and nuclear reactors, Marcoule is a nuclear research facility and amongst other dangerous activities, was where the French government produced their nuclear weapons in the past. At the moment they are working on the next generation of fast breeder reactors known as ASTRID (Advanced Sodium Technical Reactor for Industrial Demonstration).
Our street theatre piece worked well – we had a line of people chained together holding signs representing the deadly nuclear chain of mining, enrichment, power production, reprocessing, weapons and waste. They walked in time to the beat of a drum, heads down. Once they had stopped in front of the Areva sign, a group of dedicated and rowdy anti-nuclear protesters run forward to break the nuclear chain, and everyone joined together in a circle, to celebrate an future free from nuclear slavery. It was amateur street theatre at its best, and looked great on film (we hope to get a copy out online soon).
As we walked around the facility, I thought of all the people living so close to Marcoule. Only 10 mins walk away was a house with a children’s swing and slide set. How many children live so close to the nuclear facilities that constantly emit radiation? How will it effect them? How can we guarantee these the health of these children? Every step today for me was a prayer for the families like those near Marcoule, who need and deserve to live a healthy, nuclear free world.
Today, we are staying in Pont St Esprit, in a beautiful garden near La Rhone. Tomorrow we will walk to Tricastin Nuclear Power Plant. It’s not an easy path to walk, in this valley filled with nuclear facilities, but today we stop to rest and reflect.
France walk update – Pont St Esprit to Montchenu
Week 3 of the walk was full of nuclear facilities.
On Monday, we arrived at Tricastin, to find out that Greenpeace had got there first for an impromptu action. At 5am, activists broke into the nuclear power plant, done a banner drop and occupied the site. Twenty-nine people were arrested. This sparked national media coverage and the whole of France was talking about nuclear issues (mainly the lack of security at nuclear facilities, but also a debate about ending nuclear power production). Unfortunately, we were unable to get to the gates of Trictastin, as we were surrounded by dozens of Gendarme (French Military Police) and two police helicopters when we arrived, and ended up walking an extra 6km in the heat as a result of a police cordon around the plant. We did our “Deadly nuclear chain” street theatre as close as we could to the gates, and went on to walk past a rather disturbing tourist attraction, a Crocodile farm that uses heated water from the Nuclear Power plant to grow Crocodiles for the high-end fashion industry… sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Footage of walk was used on the national TV news and we got many toots of support and many people stopping to talk to us.
Tricastin is one of the oldest nuclear power plants in France, and also houses an enrichment facility to turn UF4, from the Comurhex plant near Narbonne, and turns it into UF6, one step closer to nuclear fuel. It is one of the most contentious power plants in France and has been plagued with accidents, one of the major being radioactive leakage into local waterways. It is also the focus of a court action taken by the Reseau Sortir du nucleaire (the largest ant-nuclear network in France) for breaches of safety in transporting nuclear fuels. It was discovered that the operators of Tricastin, had transported four shipments of UF6 and Plutonium without declaring the contents on the trucks. It is a serious breach of the French nuclear regulations, but sadly from what I’ve seen here already, it is common practice in the secretive French nuclear industry.
The next day we crossed the Rhone and walked into Chepuis Ferme – an organic farm run by an extended family. We enjoyed their lovely garden, donations of beautiful vegetables and friendly dogs. That night one of the Australian walkers – Bilbo Taylor was invited to appear on stage at the Avignon International Theatre Festival, one of the oldest festivals of its kind in the world, as a witness for the prosecution in “L’impossible process” (The Impossible Trial). The play was a mock trial of the nuclear industry and each night a different person is asked to give their testimony.
Bilbo spoke from his own experiences of the impacts of Uranium mining in Australia whilst living with the Arabunna and Kookatha people in the Lake Eyre region, near the world’s largest uranium mine, Olympic Dam uranium mine at Roxby Downs in the North of South Australia. After giving a description of the current situation of Australian Uranium mining and the proposed nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory he went on to explain what he sees as the other impacts of this industry to Aboriginal people in Australia, radioactive racism. He spoke about the disempowerment of the Native Title system, that Aboriginal people haven’t got the right to say ‘no’ and the enormous water use that is killing the desert and sacred sites of the local aboriginal people. These are the hidden impacts of the industry, not only does it pollute with radioactivity but also forbids Aboriginal people access to their sacred places, steals and destroys their water and kills their fragile desert ecosystem. It also hinders their connection to land and freedom to practice their culture and spiritual ways, a kind of radioactive genocide. Apparently there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as he spoke.
Afterwards he stayed on with a few of the other walkers talking with the actors and director. The play was an interesting way to successfully engage people with nuclear issues through the arts. It’ll be touring around France for the next 18 months.
On Wednesday we walked to another nuclear power plant, Cruas, only a few km’s from the town Meysse. Along the way we stopped at the local town hall to observe a minutes silence for a local man, Vital Michalon, who was killed at an anti-nuclear demonstration, to stop the construction of the “Super Phoenix”, liquid sodium cooled MOX fuel reactor, near Lyon in 1977. One of our walkers Eric was present at the same demonstration as a seventeen-year-old boy. He described the scene as ‘like a war’ when 60,000 people opposed to the construction of the nuclear power station near Lyon where brutally crushed by the French military. Many people where seriously harmed, with loss of limbs as one of the many injuries. Vital Michalon was killed by the impact of a concussion grenade that hit him in the face. According to Eric it was a defining point in the French resistance to nuclear power and he believed that the government deliberately brutalise its own citizens to break the back of the resistance movement.
At Cruas many local people and a journalist met us. The regional paper has been doing a series of articles about the walk, and we are getting really good coverage with photos and some excellent quotes. We were visited by our Toro-busting matador who impressed everyone by thoroughly defeating the Toro bull again in front of Cruas – another site where Toro Energy would like to make some money poisoning a community with uranium from the proposed mine at Wiluna. Visiting the place reinforced our commitment to stopping Toro Energy and companies like them with sinister plans to dig up yellowcake in WA. We did the “deadly nuclear chain” street theatre again (we’re getting pretty polished now). Some last minute organising by the amazing Marion meant we stayed at the most picturesque footy field I have seen, located in a forest by the Rhone River. Everyone enjoyed a good night’s sleep in this lovely place.
We walked well and got in early to the next stay place, and with the generous support of a local anti-nuke supporter, who welcomed us into her home for lunch. She had also arranged for us to stay in a roomy hall at the back of a church. Many walkers enjoyed a swim in a beautiful swimming hole, complete with dragonflies and a waterfall. It was a well-needed refreshing break on this big week of visiting nuclear sites.
We got up early on Friday for a big day (30km in this heat is a bit of challenge, but nothing waking up at 4am won’t fix!). People went ahead at lunch to arrive at our next stay place, where they created an excellent camp with shelter, a kitchen, showers and a composting loo, in a field that only had water to start with. A party next door meant a less restful night for some, though the “sleep in” until 6am (woohoo!) was welcomed. Our host here, Jacques, is a bicycling musician, and charmed us with his lovely songs. The next day we began the walk a little late to arrive at the right time to meet locals and journalists at the AREVA operated FBFC, nuclear fuel rod production facility.
This is the final step in the French nuclear fuel production chain, where UF6 from Tricastin is transformed into nuclear fuel rods for use in the 58 reactors around the country. Like all of the nuclear plants we have visited along the way, they have been plagued with accidents and breaches of safety, and this one is no exception.
The most striking aspect of the nuclear industry in France is that it is everywhere and close to everyone. Farming and houses uncomfortably ‘coexist’ with power plants, weapons, enrichment, abandoned mines and waste facilities. At all the plants we have visited, farmlands run right up to the fence line with large populations of people living literally meters away. There are no signs denoting what goes on inside the facilities, nor are there ever any radiation hazard, or any other hazard signs. It is a testament to the secrecy of the French nuclear industry that even today many people who live near and around these plants have no idea of what they produce or the apparent dangers, and I feel that that’s the way the nuclear industry wants it… ignorance is bliss!
We made it through the week to arrive at our next rest place – “Carav’Anes” (Anes is the word for donkey in