BARBARA PREZELJ

Fort de Vaujours, located in the commune of Courtry, Seine-Saint-Denis, close to the town of Vaujours, is originally one of the forts built at the end of the 19th century to defend Paris. Its construction started in 1876 and was completed in 1882.

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During the World War II (1940 - 1944) the fort was used as ammunition and explosives depot by the Germany army, who in 1944, while leaving, set out to destroy the munitions but a large number of unexploded ordnance remained on site. While there was a number of unexploded ordnance found near the Southern battery, the location and the total number of all unexploded munition remains unknown.

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After the German army retreated, the fort became the site of pyrotechnic experiments by the national powder mill of Sevran (la Poudrerie Nationale de Sevran) and finally, from 1955 to 1997, the fort was used by the CEA, France’s Atomic Energy Commision (Commissariat à l’énergie atomique). The site was significantly modified and was used for pyrotechnic experiments that focused on the study of explosives and the dynamic behaviour of shock-loaded materials, including natural and depleted uranium. It was here where the core components of the country’s first atomic bombs were developed in 1960s.

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For four decades the site was used as a nuclear weapons testing site, where scientists detonated hundreds of miniature bombs containing combinations of natural or depleted uranium and explosives. Before being moved to one of the nuclear testing bunkers, these explosions were taking place outdoors, with radioactive debris to be found in 1 km radius from the fort. After the research center was closed in 1997, CEA proposed the site for sale, despite the growing concerns about the possible radioactive contamination. 

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In 2010 the majority of the area was sold to Placoplatre, local plaster company, which plans to demolish the fort (keeping only the South Battery) and make way for a new gypsum mine, a key ingredient in plaster. Placoplatre is one of the main affiliates of Saint-Gobain, a French multinational corporation which produces a variety of  construction products, innovative  and packaging materials and calls itself ‘the world leader in sustainable environments’. The group is present in 66 countries around the world, with big delegations in India, Middle East, South Africa and Brazil. In Vaujours, Placoplatre already operates several gypsum quarries in the surroundings and the plan is to extend the one that is near-by, making Placoplatre the largest gypsum producer in Europe.

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The project has raised many questions about the safety of the local inhabitants and more than 90,000 people have signed a petition to stop the project, fearing that the digging and the demolition of old buildings will spread the toxic dust. Despite the fact that government regulators and Placoplatre, according to the results of measurements taken on site by various governmental agencies on behalf of Placoplatre, had said the site could be considered sufficiently clean for redevelopment, a group of independent researchers found serious contamination in the bunkers. The CRIIRAD (Commission for Independent Research and Information about Radiation) confirmed the public fears by measuring alpha-beta-gamma radiation rates 70 times higher than normal (the measurements have been taken on a specific point inside the nuclear testing bunker). 

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During the tests, radioactive dust and fragments fell to the ground, clearly showing that the contamination is not strictly localized but importantly that the particles can be displaced around the site and beyond, causing risk of contamination by inhalation and ingestion. Moreover, after years of denying, CEA has finally admitted that certain structures have been encased in concrete due to the inability to decontaminate and that uranium most likely found its way to the underlying gypsum through rainwater networks and infiltration wells.

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In 2014 twenty-five buildings were demolished, but the process was interrupted due to radioactive risk. From mid-2015 on, with the approval of the ASN (France’s Nuclear Safety Authority), the demolition continues with the site being closed off to public and under constant surveillance. Mining activities are scheduled to start in 2020.   

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It is fair to say that the total area of 45 hectares, which used to be managed by the CEA, remains marked by natural and depleted uranium up to this day. The level of contamination is hard to accurately determine for the entire site in question, but the effects are telling, one being the cancer incidence in the surrounding towns which is considerably higher that the France average. Nevertheless, despite all the risk and uncertainty connected to the site, some people find it fascinating and intriguing, trying to repair the South Battery that was said to be redeveloped into a museum (project financed by Placoplatre) once the rest of the site becomes an open-pit mine.

Land is a poured thing and time a surface film lapping

and fringing at fastness, at a hundred hollow and

receding blues.

Breathe fast: we’re backing off the rim.

- Annie Dillard

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