Cinema Literature and Energy

Did Someone Say “Radioactive”?

Cover of La Centrale by Elisabeth Filhol
© Folio

Comment realized by Alain Beltran, Senior Research Fellow, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

The French play and film Les Palmes de M. Schutz and the novel La Centrale and Grand Central, the movie it inspired, illustrate the significance of radioactivity at different stages of history, from the coining of the term in the late 19th century by Pierre and Marie Curie to modern-day usage in nuclear plants where controlling exposure to radiation is a constant source of worry for technicians. The two periods represented in these works are connected by a century of research where scientists strove to understand the mysteries of the tiny atomThe basic unit of matter and the smallest, indivisible unit of a chemical element... and unlock a new source of energy.

The Discovery of Radium in Les Palmes de M. Schutz

Since its premiere in 1989, Jean-Noël Fenwick’s play has been performed many times and met with success in more than 20 countries. At first glance, the Curies’ discovery of radiumDiscovered by Pierre and Marie Curie in 1898... may not seem particularly accessible subject matter for a play. But the twists and turns of the couple’s research are told in a way that raises a smile on more than one occasion, with a healthy dose of suspense as the scientists find themselves facing unknown phenomena. The “Monsieur Schutz” of the title is Paul Schützenberger, director of the higher education institute for industrial physics and chemistry now known as ESPCI Paris. He dreams of being awarded a Palme académique, France’s highest order for academics, established by Emperor Napoleon I. And yet he watches on sadly as the coveted purple ribbon goes instead to his competitors, while he has no grand discovery to show for himself. However, the institute is also host to renowned researcher Pierre Curie (1859-1906), working as head of a laboratory, who is later joined by a brilliant young Polish woman named Marie Sklodowska. The two young people fall in love, marry in 1895, and go on to have their daughter Irène two years later. But the play is at its heart about the mysteries of uraniumGray, very dense radioactive metal that is relatively abundant in the Earth's crust and oceans in the form of UO2..., particularly hyperphosphorescence. Marie Curie (1867-1934) is working on a thesis about the rays (discovered by Henri Becquerel, 1852-1908) emitted by this element, known as uranium rays. In her apparently underheated laboratory, despite highly precise instruments (most notably a piezoelectric electrometer that can measure tiny quantities of electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor...), understanding why uranium ore, or pitchblende, is more “active” than purified uranium proves a difficult task. The very idea seems to run contrary to the laws of physics... or chemistry. But Marie makes some significant findings, which are immediately presented to the Académie des Sciences. Keen to find out more, the Curies send for tons of pitchblende from Bohemia, from which they extract materials that send the electrometer into overdrive. These experiments lead to the couple’s discovery of two new elements: polonium (named in honor of Marie Sklodowska-Curie’s native Poland) and radium (1898), which emits nearly 1,000 times more rays than uranium. It takes several tons of pitchblende to isolate a gram of radium salts under conditions which are themselves an amazing feat of physics. To describe the phenomenon, the Curies coin the term “radioactivity” and radium soars to the height of fashion, with famed dancer Loie Fuller even requesting a costume made of radium for its pretty blue glow. In 1903, the two researchers win a Nobel Prize (shared with Henri Becquerel). In the audience, brimming with pride, is Monsieur Schutz, whose dreams of academic awards are finally coming true.

Claude Pinoteau’s film, starring Isabelle Huppert as Marie Curie, Charles Berling as Pierre Curie and Philippe Noiret as Monsieur Schutz, closely follows the plot of the play. Most of the action still takes place in the lab, but a handful of scenes set in the Académie des Sciences and the Nobel Academy add a sense of space. The film clearly depicts the phosphorescence of uranium salts, which Marie Curie calls “the light of the future”. It even features an in-joke for scientists, with a horsedrawn carriage delivering the sackfuls of pitchblende driven by no other than Pierre-Gilles de Gennes and Georges Charpak, two French physicists who won the Nobel Prize in 1991 and 1992, respectively, in an amusing cameo that is also a tribute to their revered predecessors. The two “actors” had, like the film’s protagonists, spent part of their academic career at ESPCI Paris. However, contrary to what the film portrays, the very first director of the prestigious school, renowned chemist Paul Schützenberger (1829-1897) – the famous “Monsieur Schutz” – was in fact not able to witness the Nobel Prize being awarded to the Curies in 1903 because he had passed away six years prior. Here, as often happens in cinema, the filmmakers had to play around with the timeline to condense a story spanning several years into a two-hour feature. Regardless, the play and film served to enhance the already considerable prestige surrounding the Curies and particularly Marie, who was the first woman to obtain a Nobel Prize. She went on to win a second for her work in chemistry in 1911.

The Dangers of Radioactivity in La Centrale

Elisabeth Filhol’s novel was published in France by P.O.L. in 2010. It describes modern-day conditions in nuclear powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... plants, more than a century after the work carried out by the Curies. In the interval, many academics, including the Joliot-Curies, and a succession of events had made it possible to produce energy from nuclear fissionReaction that occurs when an unstable nucleus of a heavy atom splits into lighter nuclei.... The novel takes place in Chinon (where French electric utility EDF built its first power plant, now being decommissioned) and Blayais in the Gironde region. “When choosing one site over another, engineers’ specifications have remained unchanged since the sixties: they look for a medium-sized town fairly close to a large city – downwind of it if possible, according to prevailing winds, rather than upwind – and near the sea or a river, with a low seismic risk.”

Following this introduction, the narrative describes the plant in its concrete cladding: “It’s not just about size. For that, you can find even more impressive constructions in other industries, like oil and steel. But here, there’s more than meets the eye than just concrete. As we know from its use in military applications, concrete can resist extreme physical strain. And for radiation protection, it provides a sealed, contained environment and secures off the reactor building space as required, with microcracks and porosity in the concrete monitored closely. Fairly standard stuff.” The author also alludes to the near silence of the area surrounding the plant, the clouds of water vapor emitted by the cooling towers, and an anti-nuclear protest.

Inside the plant and into the world of the tiny atom, phenomena take place that release considerable amounts of energy: “What happens inside the reactor is the perfect illustration of Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2, which connects energy and mass – far from natural bedfellows – in a constant relationship, establishing each to be proportionate to the other and showing that nothing disappears but is rather transformed into something else. A free neutronType of particle, along with the proton, that makes up the nucleus of an atom. Neutrons have no net electric charge. collides with an atom. To be more exact, a heavy atom – uranium or plutonium – absorbs a free neutron into its nucleus. The nucleus then becomes unstable, splits into two, and lets loose two or three neutrons. As this means it loses mass, the fission event releases energy. On an atomic scale, it’s a lot of energy. And it ultimately represents a lot of energy from a human perspective, too, because the principle of nuclear fission dictates that, once initiated, the reaction spreads to billions more atoms in a few fractions of a second.”

The narrative follows a team of temporary workers who move from plant to plant according to workforce needs on each site. Filhol’s writing is spare and precise, capturing the highly distinct working atmosphere particular to nuclear power plants. The environment is in one sense traditionally industrial but in others very unique, teetering between attraction and repulsion due to the pervasive threat of the invisible but very real dangers of radiation. So it is of vital importance for the workers to constantly check the dosimeters they wear. Doses of radiation are measured in millisieverts (mSv), and each person must not exceed 20 mSv a year or 100 mSv over five years. The novel describes the tasks, worries and, sometimes, fates of the peripatetic workers who spend three to five weeks on each site. Some of their duties are more dangerous than others, such as placing the seal plates in a reactor’s primary circuit. And danger is ever-present, even when the work in itself is not particularly technically difficult. The author describes the anxiety of a tired, stressed worker getting something wrong: “You’re working on the primary circuit. Everyone knows the deal. Radioactive particles settle on the metal and you need teams of three or four people to spread the dose between them and get the job done in less than two or three minutes. Technically it’s not difficult, but if there’s the tiniest problem, the most minor complication, then you get hot and bothered pretty quickly because the dosimeter on your chest starts going crazy, then your heart starts beating like crazy too, and your breathing underneath the helmet speeds up.” Those who crack under the pressure stop taking on tasks where they are exposed to radiation to work on the cooling towers instead, which is less dangerous but seen as a step down.

Divided into vignettes and parallel narratives, the novel is imbued with a highly distinctive atmosphere reflecting the extraordinary nature of the job. It highlights the difficult working conditions for certain roles in the nuclear industry, which is a subject not often addressed. It went on to inspire the 2013 film Grand Central, directed by Rebecca Zlotowski and starring Tahar Rahim and Léa Seydoux, which in 2014 won a Globe de Cristal – a prize awarded in France by journalists in the entertainment industry. The movie reproduces the nuclear power plant setting described in the novel, as well as the roles of the temporary workers, but strays from the source material by turning the plot into a love story and focusing on three main characters. Outdoor parts of the movie were shot at the Cruas plant in Ardèche and other scenes were filmed at Austria’s Zwentendorf facility, which is the country’s only power plant to have never been operational and to be open to the public (making it better suited to indoor shots). Like the novel, it was one of the first French films to feature a nuclear power plant as its main theme and setting.

Find out more:

As well as the films, play and novel already mentioned, a number of resources in French are available on the Curies, particularly Marie:

  • Two publications written for young people:

Marie Curie : Elle a découvert l’énergie nucléaire, École des loisirs, 2016.

On her role during the First World War (which deserves a feature all to itself):

Marie Curie et la grande guerre, Anaïs Massiot and Natalie Pigeard-Micault, Éditions Glyphe, 2014.

  • The biography of the Curies by Eve Curie, Madame Curie, Folio-Gallimard, 1981
  • The Musée Curie, rather pleasingly located at 1 rue Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris’ 5th arrondissement.

There is also an abundance of literature available on nuclear energyEnergy produced in nuclear power plants. The enormous amount of heat released during fission of uranium atom nuclei is transferred to water..., often highly technical and sometimes controversial:

  • A good place to start would be Pourquoi le nucléaire ?, Bertrand Barré, De Boeck, 2017.

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