“The main problem is not the health damages ..”

The former war photographer has shot several documentaries and teaches aikido among other pursuits.

Published: 30. Jun. 2019
Story told by:

Alain de Halleux, 52, a nuclear scientist, lives with his four sons in Brussels. The former war photographer has shot several documentaries and teaches aikido among other pursuits.

“The main problem is not the health damages, but the unacceptable conditions of work.”

Alain de Halleux, 52, a nuclear scientist, lives with his four sons in Brussels. The former war photographer has shot several documentaries and teaches aikido among other pursuits. Alain de Halleux shot the ARTE documentary “Nothing to report?” about the working conditions near French nuclear power plants. For the research, the movie maker spent two years with the staff of the nuclear power plant.

Why did you want to make a movie on this subject and what experiences did you have during your research?

Because the Swedish reactor Forsmark almost exploded in July 2006, I wanted to understand what exactly goes on in a nuclear power plant (NPP). So I decided to speak to the regular workers. After several months of research in many EU countries, I noticed that no one in this industry wanted to let me into the plants or answer my questions. I was, for example, at Sellafield. But the workers were not willing to speak to me. They were afraid of losing their jobs. The same in Sweden: They were all frightened. At a NPP, you belong to a community, living totally isolated from the rest of the world, close to the reactor. And if you “talk”, you are a “squealer”. The nuclear industry has been keeping a big secret for many years and nobody talks about it. And if you do, you lose your job and everybody thinks you are a traitor.

In what countries could you actually talk with the NPP staff?

The country where the people truly felt obliged to speak, was France. In this country that is leading the nuclear industry, things are going badly. The willingness of the workers to talk is proof enough. This country has 54 nuclear reactors and one of them, Fessenheim, is right next to the German border. The French are trying to prolong the permitted operating time, although it actually should close. Some workers even call it the “death-NPP”.

And the workers are talking now, because they are scared?

Yes, they fear to go to work, because the nuclear power plants are so unsafe. 50 years ago all the workers kept silent, because they wanted to protect their industry against the anti-nuclear movement. In France they are starting to talk now, because they dread the way the industry is being managed today will lead to a huge disaster. Therefore, they have taken the responsibility to speak in front of my camera. And that in turn is frightening.

How are the working conditions in a nuclear power plant?

Formerly, all activities were executed by the workers directly employed at the NPP. There was kind of a collective memory. Today the workers are no longer employed directly at the NPP or the energy corporation, but as a subcontractor of another company. They are not officially in the nuclear industry and the contractors must constantly move from one nuclear power station to the next, because the contracts expire on average every two years, due to European legislation. Thus, the collective memory is lost. Furthermore, the workers in the NPP come directly from university and have no experience, yet they give the commands. It is totally absurd. To be able to give instructions, you really have to know what you are doing.

Is it therefore more of a security problem?

There is a huge security problem. People from the nuclear industry say they have everything under control. That worries me, because such statements imply that they have no idea of the actual situation, or they deny it. Otherwise, they would say: “Yes, there is a problem, we must act immediately.” They are so damn sure, when they say that this is not the same technology as the Chernobyl nuclear power station. And that is true. But the worker is in the central to safety. And the worker, that is the subcontractor, is treated very badly there. Many of them commit suicide and the divorce rate among the employees is very high.

Because the pressure is so high?

They know their work is very important for security, but at the same time nobody lets them do their work well, due to financial pressure. If anything happens in the NPP now, it is no longer the chief executives who are responsible, but the workers, because they have signed papers saying they have done the work. This really is illogical, because they are poorly paid, but must bear all the responsibility. For me, that’s slavery.

That does not sound very democratic …

No. It is unacceptable that the people, who produce our energy, are treated like shit and nobody knows who they are. In former times, everybody used to know that coal came from the earth and that miners unearthed it. Nowadays, you switch on your computer and do not think for one second about the people who work in a nuclear power station. How can this be possible? If you say, I do not know that my steak comes from a cow, people would tell you, how stupid you are, but with energy, it is exactly the same. We do not know where our energy comes from and we do not know the people who produce it. That is unfair and also very dangerous.

What do you think, happens in the case of total meltdown?

When a nuclear power plant explodes, we need about 600.000 people who will sacrifice themselves to solve the problem. Chernobyl was not a giant accident. It was just a big one. The situation would have been ten times worse, if we didn’t have people who were willing to sacrifice themselves in the cleanup operation. In Europe, no one would volunteer, because no one is responsible. And we don’t live in a dictatorship anymore. Therefore we must stand up and say, that this is not the right way to act.