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Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#499-500
Special: The magazine of hope
16/10/1998
Article

Britons against Plogoff nuclear power plant and uranium mining

(October 16, 1998) The Brittany area, located on the Atlantic ocean, like a big nose toward the Americas on the western littoral of France, is the only nuclear-free region of a highly nuclearized nation. When looking at a map of France showing nuclear facilities, one might wonder why the Brittany region looks so clean, so "out of this business"...

(499/500.4934) WISE Copenhagen - In 1973-74, when President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's government launched a huge civil nuclear program, the map of France was studded with potential sites for nuclear power plants. Brittany wasn't excluded and has once numbered four different locations for nuclear reactors: Erdeven, Plogoff, Saint Jean Du Doigt and Ploumoguer.
As early as 1975, in the little locality of Erdeven (Morbihan) people mobilized themselves very quickly, started a huge mass movement, and threatened to go and arm themselves. Rebellion became so threatening that the state withdrew the project before even starting the impact-assessment study.

Plogoff...
In June 1976, a first confrontation occurred at Plogoff when EdF engineers were prevented from entering the prospective site by local inhabitants blocking the access roads. After that, the Plogoff issue faded into the background for several years.
In 1978 then, the state opted for the Plogoff location again. Meanwhile, in March of that year, the large Amoco Cadiz oil spill had taken place before the coast of Brittany and environmental awareness had risen. Plogoff is situated at the tiptop end of the Finistère department ("the end of the earth"), on the Cap Sizun, a region known for its powerful wilderness.
As soon as the decision to build the nuclear power plant was made public, people started to organize marches. In September 1978 5,000 people marched on the site, and 15,000 a week later in the nearby cities of Brest and Quimper. However, the regional authorities approved the site. Several large demonstrations took place in the next year. In July 1979, the commune of Plogoff received the first papers regarding the statutory inquiry into the public utility of the project, a sign that Electricite de France (EdF) was determined to proceed. The local councils refused to cooperate with the inquiry.

Time for barricades...
In the morning of January 30, 1980, the official documents for the Public Utility Inquiry (3.5 kilograms of paper) arrived at the city hall and were immediately burned ceremonially on the city hall square in the presence of the Mayor.
This launched the beginning of a new level of resistance.

To fulfill the statutory procedures of the licensing process, the inquiry documents had to be displayed locally. Because civil servants and EdF were not allowed by the local politicians to use the city hall or any other place in Plogoff or in the surrounding villages, they set up a mobile "City Hall Annexes" (literaly: "Mairies Annexes") in a small van for displaying the documents.
The following night, the first barricades appeared. All access roads where blocked with tree trunks, old tractors and whatever was available, to welcome the public inquiry team the coming morning, and to stop the mobile "city hall annexes" from entering the town. That morning very early, under heavy police protection the mobile van, dubbed the "city hall annexes", made its way, having first to remove all barricades. There they stayed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and withdrew again. This was the beginning of the siege of Plogoff. During the entire six weeks, from January 31 to March 14, the "city hall annexes" and the police guarding them came under constant attack from local people.

A series of molotov cocktails, arrests, trials, petition asking the removal of the intervention forces which stationed there permanently, marches gathering several thousand people, general strikes and even strikes in regional courts on days when cases against anti-nuclear activists were scheduled. All this put a new rhythm into the daily life of Plogoff's inhabitants. Every day, the convoy had to get into place through the barricades and other obstacles; the location of the "city hall annexes" was usually fouled with manure and had to be cleaned up. During the day mainly the women kept up a constant psychological warfare with insults and taunts thrown at the police. The main clashes usually occurred at 5 p.m. when the "annexes" were due to be withdrawn. Police replied with tear gas and arrests.

On March 14, the last day of the inquiry, the people of Cap Sizun choose to grieve. A crowd of at least 7.000 pilgrims gathered on the Cap and organized a symbolic burial with black coffins, wooden crosses, crowns of flowers and women wearing the traditional grieving headdress. Enough reason for the police to use tear gas. A major anti-nuclear fete took place two days later attended by 50,000 to 60,000 people.

Then slowly calm came back after the departure of the public inquiry team, and Plogoff was left as a big battlefield, like the village of Asterix and Obelix after the visit of the Roman invaders.
During the following months, although it seemed the battle was over, that was not the case. People didn't give up and asked support from other localities in the area, organized lectures with the independent scientists of the GSIEN (Groupement des Scientifiques pour l'Information sur l'Energie Nucléaire) among others about the accident of Three Miles Island at Harrisburg, US, that had taken place the year before. In May 1980, at Pentecost, 100,000 people demonstrated on the site again. There were no illusions that the licensing procedures would have any other result than the go-ahead for the Plogoff nuclear power plant. But resistance was undiminished and detailed plans were drawn up by the locals to defend the site.
By the autumn of 1980 the site was kept under constant occupation. The landing of helicopters was made impossible by special kites and oil drums ready to be ignited. There was an early warning system within a radius of 50 km around the site, for approaches on land. Barricades to block all access roads had been prepared. The land had been taken in common ownership by about 2,000 individuals to make expropration more difficult. A sheep farm was installed on the site and supplied with additional sheep by Larzac farmers.

But the final showdown never took place.
In May 1981, President Mitterand was elected and made his election promise become true: he cancelled the project.
There will never be any nuclear facility at Plogoff!

Pierre Le Padellec, living in Bubry, 150 kilometers from Plogoff, is one of the founders of "Eau et Rivières" (Water and Rivers), a regional environmental protection group set up in 1969, as well as of Comité Uranium Information Bubry (C.U.I.B.: Bubry's Information Committee on Uranium).

He remembers that time as a participant at Plogoff:

 

"At that time, I was a reader of La Gazette Nuclaire by Monique Sénée and Roger and Bella Belbéoch as well as many other things on nuclear power, so I had access to independent information. There had been really great meetings with the local population and the people sent from Paris (decision-makers, EdF staff) thinking that it wouldn't be hard to convince 'these peasants', the Britons. EdF had ordered to sociologists a survey on the population of Plogoff and the conclusion was: 'This is a coarse population, there will be no problem!'
They just didn't know how the Britons could be determined.
The movement was made out of women essentially, because men were busy with fishing. In fishering as in farming communities, women play a central role in the household and in economic decisions -- they became more and more determined, more confident; they gained authority. The EdF people and public opinion in general didn't expect such an involvement from the womenfolk. But they were very good in mobilizin--their husbands first, then the retired people.

I was active through 'Eau et Rivères' and through the C.U.I.B. We used to provide the movement with documents and reflection papers on nuclear power and on the consequences of uranium mining. There was a network of organizations which were really numerous and there were many different people working in totally different directions, such as, for example, Organizations of Britons (for the survival of the Celtic-Briton cultural heritage), organized groups of Independentistes (demanding separation of Brittany from France), Britons Littoral Protection unions and environmental organizations were very developed at that time.
Our main arguments were of course the dangers of nuclear power but also important was the refusal of the states' power and the power by the technocrats; it was THE project of the technicians and engineers.
"Our struggle was a reaction on a state which never took into consideration the opinion of the people 'à la base', on cultural matters or environmental matters. At the same time, there were many bomb attacks against Paris centralized power representation offices (prefectures, etc.).
Our organization 'Eau et Riviere' organized a big campaign to stop the construction of a dam which was to flood an ancient forest. The purpose of building the dam was the need of water to make the concrete for the Plogoff nuclear plant. So one day we gathered 1,000 persons to clean the river leading to the proposed location of the dam, it was a very good media action. The dam was never built.

Our way of acting was to make big actions, and a lot of information meetings to explain in a simple way the technical things about nuclear power. There had even been an energy alternative plan for Brittany called 'Alterbreton' made by scientists from the Brest university, which emphasized the potential for renewables in the area. It was the result of extensive research on wind and sun in order to first convince ourselves that there were alternatives, then to have good arguments against the technocrats.

When the project was cancelled in May 1981, for the first time a community had shown that it was possible to win. Until that time, no one had been able to oppose and win against super power EdF...
It was the strongest, the biggest wave of opposition against a nuclear power plant in France, and the presidential decision to cancel the project because of the strong opposition was a première in France.
The impact was enormous in France; it gave other people inspiration and hope to be able to reach the same goal in their area."

When asked what became of the movement, he answers:

"Some people were specialized in anti-nuclear matters but most of the people were working on environmental matters such as water issues, for example (nitrates, pesticides, pollutions of rivers, etc.), so we never demobilized and people kept working on environmental matters.
And the ones more orientated towards Briton ethnicity and the survival of the Briton culture went back to their tasks."

One of the consequences of the struggle at Plogoff was the EdF abandoning all its projects in Brittany for they weren't willing to face more opposition; then the Cogema followed the same path later on and abandoned all its projects about uranium mining in the area...

Flashback...
Indeed, at the end of the 70s and during the 80s, there were several mines opened in Brittany and many others to be opened. In 1983, the Cogema actively started new prospecting activities for uranium in the area. The uranium concentration wasn't very high, though something like 0.01% compare to some current Canadian uranium ores, for example, with a concentration of 8%, but still Cogema was determined to get it out of the ground....
Not only did the anti-uranium committees try to prevent the Cogema from settling its represention office in the area; there were also many actions on sites to stop prospecting work. In December 1984, the representation office of the Cogema, a rented house near Pontivy (Morbihan), was blasted. The ARB (Armée Révolutionnaire Bretonne, Briton Revolutionary Army) claimed responsibility for the attack.
So the Cogema reacted by moving to a new building in downtown Pontivy, with high security systems and guarded day and night. Then the discovery of new uranium deposits in Saskatchewan, Canada, co-owned by Cogema, was a good moment to abandon its mining and prospecting activities in Brittany.

Because of a strong cultural identity, their attachment to their land and a powerful determination, the Britons managed to prevent any nuclear power plant from being installed, and kept the powerful Parisian technocrats away.
Doesn't this remind you of a small community living in Brittany which is known for keeping the foreign invaders away....?

Sources:

  • Interview with P. Le Padellec
  • local press reports
  • Plogoff-La révolte, éd. Le Signor, April 1980
  • Anti-Nuclear Movements, Wolfgang Rüdig, 1990

Contact: P. Le Padellec, Er Geingnec, 56.310 Bubry, France.