In the early hours of 12 October 2017, eight people sneaked inside the grounds of the Cattenom nuclear plant in northern France. Without much difficulty, they reached the foot of a spent fuel pool – where the still highly radioactive fuel rods are stored after use.
It was a scenario Greenpeace France had been warning about since 2001 through numerous reports, letters and speeches. France’s aging fleet of reactors is poorly protected, and not designed to withstand big impacts, such as an explosion set off by terrorists. A loss of water from the spent fuel pools – protected by walls only 30cm thick – could lead to a massive release of radioactivity.
Fortunately, the eight intruders turned out to be peaceful activists from Greenpeace France; they set off some fireworks to demonstrate their presence and then allowed themselves to be led away. The ease with which they had penetrated alarmed the government of Luxembourg, which lies just north of Cattenom. It also finally spurred the French authorities into action; a parliamentary investigation into nuclear safety was announced the following month.
It’s a textbook example of the role of non-violent direct action (NVDA) in a democracy, much like the recent climate strikes. When the authorities are sleeping at the wheel, and not responding to polite arguments, citizen action is needed to wake them up. In this case, it did.
A happy end? Unfortunately not. In a classic case of shooting the messenger, prosecutors have pressed for stiff penalties. In February 2018, a court in Thionville sentenced the ‘Cattenom nine’ – the eight activists and a Greenpeace France employee. It imposed a 2-month jail sentence on two of the individuals, and suspended sentences on the rest. It also ordered Greenpeace France to pay €50,000 to the power company, EDF as ‘moral damages’.
These are almost unprecedented sanctions for Greenpeace activists. In 2013, 30 Greenpeace activists spent 2 months in pre-trial detention for a protest against Arctic oil drilling; Russia was later ordered to pay compensation by an international tribunal for detaining them unlawfully. We have to go all the way back to 1987 to find another example that comes close; in that year, Hans Guyt and Willem Beekman were sentenced to three months in jail by an English judge, for protesting the discharge of waste from the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant into the Irish Sea. They were released after 6.5 weeks, however.
An Australian court took a very different approach to a very similar action back in 2002. The trespass charges against 46 activists who entered a nuclear facility were dismissed. The judge agreed that protesting outside the front gate wouldn’t have been as effective to demonstrate the inadequate security measures. She added that the “right to protest and the right to express publicly one’s political views, albeit in the form of direct action, is one which is to be valued and protected in the context of a modern democracy.”
On 30 October, the Court of Appeals in Metz will have a chance to set the record straight and show that France indeed values and protects this right. The ‘Cattenom 9’ will be presenting their appeal, arguing the action was justified by a ‘state of necessity’ – a present or imminent danger threatening lives or livelihoods.
The activists will need all the backing they can get. You can add your voice of support at https://cartesoutien.greenpeace.fr, or tweet a message using #9deCattenom.
Daniel Simons is a Senior Legal Counsel Strategic Defence with Greenpeace International