The use of historical commemorations: the example of the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in the energy transition debate
Energy transition is an omnipresent issue in the French media, especially since the 21st climate conference last December. The 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on April 26, a few days after the signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement on April 22, disrupted this sequence, stressing the gap between declarations of intent and reality.
In an interview with Le Monde in 2013, the historian Pierre Nora spoke about a « memorial tendency » in France, as many politicians attempt to take ownership of the past according to today’s agenda, with variable success. As one may remember, Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal in 2007 to have every French students read, at the beginning of the year, the farewell letter by Guy Môquet, caused real outcry in 2007.
Though widely commemorated by Ukraine of course, but also by Japan and the German neighbor, the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster had a limited echo amongst French politicians, even though it was one of the 20th century’s greatest catastrophes.
The nuclear accidents of Chernobyl and Fukushima (whose 5th anniversary was celebrated on March 11), and more recently the terrorist threat to nuclear power stations (cf. Notre regard sur from April 8) put a dramatic emphasis on the nuclear security issue, a major citizen concern in France and neighboring countries. In the last few years, we have seen Germany, Luxembourg and Swiss stand up for the closure of nuclear power stations located at their borders. With a « never again » claim, opponents of nuclear energy advocated for the end of the activity on those sites (especially in Fessenheim), while at the same time the French nuclear « know-how » is being questioned, notably because of construction delays and EPR reactors defects in Finland and France.
The anniversary of Chernobyl disaster was widely discussed in the French media: articles, reports, interviews – but not so much commented by government officials. In this regard, pictures of the abandoned power station and nearby town had a strong evocative impact. So did the pathetic testimonies of the « liquidators » sent to secure the site and surprised to be still alive.
Anti-nuclear activists attempted to make the most of this sombre anniversary to mobilize opinion with several demonstrations in France. The collective « Happy birthday Chernobyl » organized a participatory performance on April 25 at 7 pm on the Pont des Arts in the presence of Corinne Lepage.
The French Government, for its part, was caught between the intention to spare the nuclear industry national champions and an ideal transition to a new and more sustainable energy mix. Timing coincidence or political mistake, the 4th Environment Conference of François Hollande’s five-year mandate took place on April 26.
The government representatives were very careful not to make any public reference to Chernobyl. Therefore, though the President mentioned an upcoming decree about the closure of Fessenheim as he opened the Environment Conference, there was not a single reference to Chernobyl in his speech.
The Government could certainly not afford making no announcement, in response to environmental injunctions, in a pre-electoral context. Yet, these only stress its contradictions regarding environmental issues and especially the sensitive nuclear subject.
Ségolène Royal announced on April 26 the extension of the emergency and intervention perimeters (in French, plans particuliers d’intervention i.e. PPI) from 10 to 20 km around French nuclear facilities. Yet, this PPI somehow reminds of another acronym: the PPE, « programmation pluriannuelle de l’énergie » (multiyear energy programming), which has been due since the energy transition law was passed in July 2015. The point of contention turns out to be… nuclear energy. Yet, the Minister has confirmed at the opening of the environmental conference that the roadmap on nuclear energy will be “submitted by July 1st” . Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in his speech at the conference, was the only one to mention the incident, saying he had “not forgotten, 30 years ago, the terrible Chernobyl disaster which has left a lasting mark in European minds”. He added that the incident caused “awareness in the whole industry”. Unlike the NGOs, he interpreted this memory as a signal of renewal for the industry, and reminded that the chief of State promotes the “refoundation of the nuclear industry”.
As for Europe Ecologie – Les Verts’ spokesperson, Julien Bayou, he regretted that ‘since 2012, the government does nothing but communications regarding sustainability matters”. Associations such as France Nature Environnement expressed their concerns as well: “If France wants to maintain the international position it acquired through the Paris agreement, it requires implementing the energy transition law; and the State must lead by example”, as warned its president, Denis L’Hostis.
The commemoration of Chernobyl’s nuclear incident brought water to nuclear opponents’ mill. The environmental conference was an occasion to recall the State’s commitments in the field of energy transition, but it did not respond to nuclear concerns. A missed opportunity to put history at the service of political action?