Guilty Love Is Backdrop in French Film on Nuclear Nomads’ Plight

When Gary Manda takes a job as an itinerant nuclear worker in southern France, he has no idea what it means to get a “dose.”

Gary, played by Tahar Rahim in Rebecca Zlotowski’s new film “Grand Central,” finds out soon enough. Also starring Lea Seydoux and set at an atomic reactor with its ticking Geiger counters and vigorous shower scrub-downs, the movie, in addition to being a steamy love triangle featuring two of the biggest young stars in French cinema, is the first feature film about the country’s “nuclear nomads.” That’s the term used for workers hired by contractors of Electricite de France SA for repairs and maintenance at its 19 plants.

For France, which gets three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear energy -- the most in the world -- the film provides a rare glimpse into the plight of the 20,000 itinerants who move between sites, often living in campsites and doing the jobs the utility’s employees shun.

“The reaction has mostly been one of shock,” said Claude Dubout, a nuclear contractor who advised Zlotowski for the film. “People seem to think nuclear reactors are run by engineers in suits who sit in control rooms. I tried to ensure that from a technical point of view there were no errors, that it accurately reflected this world that is unknown to the general public.”

The plot of the film, which opened across France Aug. 28 after being shown at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, revolves around Gary’s passionate affair with Karole, played by Seydoux, behind the back of her partner Toni, another nuclear worker.

A Peek

They work and live in close confines at EDF’s Cruas-Meysse atomic plant in the Rhone River Valley and in mobile homes at a nearby campsite. Gary and Karole’s furtive sexual encounters are mostly shot outside along a grassy river bank against the backdrop of towering 900-megawatt reactors.

The generators are part of EDF’s network of 58 reactors dotting the French countryside. The scenes inside the reactor were shot at a disaffected plant in Austria.

Between romps with Karole, Gary’s day job takes filmgoers behind heavy steel doors where workers don white protective gear complete with breathing apparatus to carry out tasks as carefully and quickly as possible so as to avoid too-high doses of radiation.

“It’s a fight against the dose,” Gary, who was unemployed and without qualifications, is told by a new colleague. “It’s colorless, odorless and all around you.”

Slow Contamination

The workers hover over turquoise waters containing highly radioactive spent fuel or handle canisters with dangerous waste. In one scene, a sobbing worker is scrubbed down and getting her head shaved due to radiation. In another, Gary saves Toni, removing a glove in the process and getting contaminated.

Any more, he is warned, and he will be consigned to non-nuclear zones of the plant, ending his work season. He does get another big dose and his boss is willing to turn a blind eye if he promises to “disappear” when the contract ends.

“Forbidden love and radiation slowly contaminate Gary,” according to the promotional material for the film distributed at Cannes.

The movie’s technical adviser Dubout, who published a book in 2010 called “I was a Nuclear Decontaminator” that charted his life as an itinerant atomic worker, still works on dismantling atomic sites. The film was also inspired by Elisabeth Filhol’s 2010 novel La Centrale on the same subject.

Second Class

When the Fukushima meltdown occurred in 2011, France’s atomic industry, along with the government, went into overdrive to reassure the population that the country had a robust safety record.

Nevertheless, the regulator imposed an estimated 10 billion euros ($13.3 billion) of improvements on EDF to bolster defenses including against flooding and earthquakes. The Autorite de Surete Nucleaire, or ASN, also examined the plight of contract workers, questioning in a report whether EDF needed so many and if they are properly supervised.

EDF hasn’t proven that sub-contracting work is “compatible” with its safety responsibilities, the regulator concluded.

Asked Sept. 10 about reaction to the film within the ASN, director general Jean-Christophe Niel, who hadn’t seen it, said a screening may be organized for staff.

French nuclear sub-contractors get on average three times more radiation than EDF workers -- although at 1.67 millisieverts a year, the level is still well below the regulated limit of 20 millisieverts a year, according to the ASN.

‘More Respect’

In the wake of the Japanese accident, EDF pledged to limit to three the number of layers of sub-contracting it uses at atomic plants and make the companies more “socially responsible.”

In “Grand Central” the hierarchy between EDF employees and the so-called nomads is illustrated when Gary learns that Cruas has a separate parking lot for EDF “aristocrats,” who he is told also get free electricity at home among other perks.

Over the past couple of years “nothing has changed for these workers,” Dubout said. “They are living precarious, invisible lives while working for an industry that is earning enormous amounts of money.”

Dubout says he has so far spurned overtures from French labor unions and anti-nuclear organizations to publicize his views.

”I’m not against nuclear energy,” he said. “I’ve made a living from it my whole life. I just think these workers deserve more respect.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.