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: