Avoiding The Next Fukushima: France Studies Nuclear Safety

France, which gets the vast majority of its electricity from nuclear power, is looking hard at safety at its 59 plants after the disaster at the Fukushima reactors in Japan. At the EDF energy giant, this world leader in atomic energy tries to show it is a

Avoiding The Next Fukushima: France Studies Nuclear Safety
Jean-Claude Lewandowski

BUGEY - Through a window, the movements of the five men are hard to interpret. Pacing across the room below, they exchange a few words, consult large files, maneuver buttons. Behind them is an enormous panel with lights and dials. The resemblance to pictures of the control room of the Fukushima plant's No 3 reactor is striking.

Housed in a sort of bunker next to a functioning nuclear plant, this room is the hub of a training center of French energy giant EDF in the eastern town of Bugey, l'Ain. It is an exact copy of the real control room of reactor No 2, and operators come here for training at least once a year. Energy safety experts have long studied France, which is among the world's leaders in nuclear power, counting on its 59 plants to supply nearly 80 percent of the country's electricity. France is also the world's largest net exporter of electricity.

In Bugey, behind tinted windows, two instructors can be seen changing parameters, provoking incidents, and watching how their trainees react. Later, there will be a debriefing session using audio and video footage. "Security is of course the absolute priority. It's at the base of all our organization – from the design of the plants to their maintenance and staff training", says Michel Rollinger, director of Ufpi, the organization that trains EDF's technicians, whether in nuclear, hydraulic, thermal or other energy sectors.

Among Ufpi's 770 employees are 580 coaches who together provide three million hours of practical training a year, on an annual budget of 110 million euros. Each plant is equipped with a simulator and dedicated training rooms. At Bugey, where Ufpi is headquartered, there is a whole campus, with training material for those who work outside the control room as well: on ventilation, chemistry, or automated systems.

Marianne Laigneau, the group's human resources director, says about 15,000 new recruits are expected in the next five years, all of whom require training. All new employees start with a 14-week course on the framework of the "Académie des métiers du nucléaire," covering the basics of working in a nuclear zone, such as security rules, radioprotection and proper behavior.

There is a further "professionalization" course, of varying length: two months for a valve-worker up to two years for an operator. The trainee's progress is monitored at each step.

In the classroom and on-site, teaching methods are diverse, with mentoring, "serious games', videos and e-learning. Above all the aim is to put the trainee in test situations that expose them not just to real equipment, but also the working atmosphere and secure communications. Whole areas are dedicated to diesel motors, ball-bearings and other engines. Valve systems, for example, take up four classrooms and a vast warehouse, bringing together hundreds of models of valves and taps of all sizes that are used in the plants.

At the training plant in Bugey, which can simulate over 1000 types of breakdown, there is a miniature plant with steam generator, turbine, alternator, and mini-simulators enabling trainees to zoom in on a particular phenomenon.

"Simulation allows us to see an accelerated version of a large number of events, or little problems," explains 30-year old operator Vincent Savoye. "You're in real life, but without the stress, because you're never alone."

"The aim is for each colleague to be able to build a mental picture of all ongoing phenomena: circuits, fuel, temperature", explains Michel Rollinger.

EDF is now multiplying its crisis exercises on all its nuclear sites, with around 10 internal emergency plans organized each year. Each plant must carry out its own intervention plan every three years.

Learning from others' experience is another key education principal. "Each incident, each event, in France or abroad, is examined extremely closely and becomes the object of a reference document," says the Ufpi boss. "What are the causes? What can we learn from it? And we adapt the training as a consequence. It's a major source of progress."

In this way, EDF made a number of findings from the accident at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, notably on crisis management in the control room. No doubt the group will learn more from the catastrophe in Japan.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Gilles Francois

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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