What would France look like after a nuclear catastrophe? The “realistic anticipatory novel” The Yellow Rock (La Pierre Jaune) tells the tale.
A translation of:
Mathias Chaillot, A quoi ressemblerait la France post-catastrophe nucléaire : le « roman d’anticipation réaliste » La Pierre Jaune nous le dévoile, Neon, 2021/02/02.
With The Yellow Rock, Geoffrey Le Guilcher takes us into a “Walking Dead Breton” where he imagines a band of anarcho-ecologists in the face of a major nuclear disaster.
You remember 9/11. You remember Fukushima. Now imagine that two planes crash into the nuclear waste treatment plant in La Hague, and forget all your memories: the reality will be much worse. It is from this basic premise that Geoffrey Le Guilcher imagines, for his first novel The Yellow Rock (editions Goutte d’Or), a France caught in a nuclear storm. Through the fate of a community of anarchists and environmentalists infiltrated by an English intelligence agent, confined to Brittany in the fallout rain, he also delivers a documented survival guide and a panorama of post-nuclear catastrophe France.
When you imagine a nuclear disaster, you think of power plants. Now, you chose to take La Hague nuclear waste treatment plant as a starting point. What’s this all about?
Its peculiarity is that it is the largest nuclear waste bin in the world. Highly radioactive fuels stored there are less hot than those in power plants, but La Hague has absolutely astronomical quantities. It’s called a factory, but it’s actually more like a city, like the closed nuclear cities in Russia. There are plenty of factories inside that have different functions and, over time, La Hague has turned into a giant storage center for highly radioactive materials. It’s been five years since the French state tried to build its Bure underground nuclear waste storage site, where construction is currently at a standstill due to opposition from local residents and activists. It’s not possible. In the meantime, everything’s going to The Hague.
I had worked on this subject in 2011 and investigated for Les Inrocks. I was able to visit it with prefectural permission, and I realized that we were really into science fiction. I went over one of the four pools, each the size of two Olympic pools, and each contains more than 100 cores of nuclear reactors.
And the idea of an attack on a nuclear waste treatment plant… is that science fiction, or does the threat really exist?
The reason I categorize it as a “realistic anticipatory novel” is that the hypothesis is accepted and calculated. The low-estimate hypothesis [on which his book is based] is seven times the impact of Chernobyl [in the event of an accident or attack]. The high-estimate hypothesis is 70 times. But in reality, if we combine all the possible threats on the site, it would be equal to several hundred Chernobyl catastrophes.
What also makes this hypothesis realistic, and which had never been revealed, is the fact that when the Americans killed bin Laden, we found two reports on French nuclear installations. There was a report written by a German expert that revealed the great flaw in La Hague, and another on our nuclear waste treatment system. It shows there is an assumption that terrorists are interested in our facilities. The documents were declassified in waves and no one went to search the CIA site. When I got in touch with this German researcher, he gave me the information. I also asked quite a few experts who were on my reading committee. Admittedly, it’s a Breton version of Walking Dead, but everything is realistic.
What is the basis of the science you describe… i.e. on the possible consequences of a disaster in this factory? For example, fallout rain that kills in a few hours. Are these possible?
This is not the most common phenomenon. But I have studied many disasters, Hiroshima, Fukushima, Chernobyl, and most of the things I have been inspired by have been observed. Acid rain, for example, can be caused by some radioactive elements. When I say that the vegetation is burnt and changes color, that people can die from it, it is possible.
After that, there is what fiction allows me to do: decide where the weather hits, or the rains fall, etc. Because in the event of a nuclear disaster, it all depends on the weather. And I am convinced, without wishing to be pessimistic, that we will one day experience a major nuclear disaster, regardless of whether it is an act of war or an accident. In Fukushima, no one had foreseen a tsunami plus an earthquake, but in the end, it comes back to the same thing: there are those who remain, those who decide to leave en masse, and those who are forced to leave.
How can you survive 300 kilometers from such a nuclear disaster, like your characters?
The first thing is food survival: you can no longer eat a tomato or drink tap water. Everything that has been in the open becomes deadly, hence the idea of this community that robs abandoned houses. But then comes the waves of cancer, various and varied diseases. It affects pregnant women and births. It attacks life, reproductions, genes. The radioactivity is impressive around the installation, but a much larger area becomes affected—the air, the water, the animals we eat. In the book I mention sheep in Scotland. They were banned for consumption for twenty years because there was a very localized fallout from Chernobyl. In East Germany, people are not allowed to eat the wild boars that are hunted there because the cesium that was thought to have disappeared concentrates in the roots and fungi. It goes up the food chain to us.
You decided to focus on a village of Bretons. But what would the rest of France look like in such circumstances?
We have a little taste with the Covid. Everything can be turned upside down quite quickly. Regions can be affected differently. We have seen that access to medicines—vaccines for Covid, iodine pellets or decontamination chambers for a nuclear disaster. Distribution becomes complicated. We are devoid of equipment. We are not prepared for a disaster of this magnitude. It would be unnamed chaos. The country would be deprived of part of its territory for 100,000 years. We could no longer trust official information. This is one of the authorities’ first fears: the panic boosted by social media would be such that no one would know any longer how to be believed. One of the solutions, in my opinion quite a good one, would be to make the information as transparent as possible by distributing Geiger counters to the population so that everyone can be a relay of information. But it doesn’t seem realistic to me. In my book, there is an association that does it with crowdfunding. In fact, we know that the IRSN has proposed this, but that doesn’t mean this solution will be accepted.
You chose to make an apocalyptic novel about confinement, which you started writing three years ago. Didn’t you feel that reality is always catching up with us?
Absolutely. I finished it during the first confinement, and I felt like I was living through some aspects of my book. Anxiety and fear were at their peak. In the event of a nuclear disaster, we would be in a much worse situation. We would really be in an unknown and unexplored area. For me, this book is a way to prepare. It’s a possible future, a bad French destiny. And it’s also a modern account. I wanted it to be a nice story to read, with strong characters.
In the face of such a catastrophe, could containment be one of the possibilities?
I’m pretty sure of that. When you read Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievitch, on the consequences of Chernobyl, we see that many have managed to stay in the abandoned territories. There have even been former prisoners, or genocide refugees from other countries, who have settled there to be left alone. Many are really attached to where they live, whatever the destiny of this place. That’s why I put the word “realistic” next to the word “anticipation.” Whether one is more pro or anti, no matter: when faced with the magnitude and form of a nuclear disaster, the experience trumps everything else. In Fukushima, the pro-nuclear prime minister is now one of the most anti-nuclear people in the world. He’s been doing conferences all over the world. One of the options on the table was to evacuate Tokyo, and he said, “It’s not possible, we can’t!” However, this is what Yves Cocher told me when I asked him about The Hague. With the prevailing winds, after an accident in The Hague, it is London and Paris that will take the direct hit. It’s going to be chaos.
If that happens tomorrow, will you be ready?
Let’s say I know what to do, how to manage external contamination by shaving hair and eyebrows and taking a long shower, for example. All this is enough to eliminate 99% of the external contamination. But there is still an internal contamination that lingers in your blood system, in your bones. With this knowledge, I could probably be less contaminated than the average person, but I know I’ll leave without hesitation.
La Pierre Jaune (The Yellow Rock) by Geoffrey Le Guilcher, Goutte d’Or editions. In French, in bookstores on February 4, 2021.