The Capuchin workshops still smell like new. Overlooking La Penfeld, in the city center, the old buildings of the arsenal of Brest transformed into a cultural center soak up the sun. In their previous life, they housed military port activities. This is where retired workers from the Ile-Longue submarine base, the flagship of the French navy, met. A peninsula located opposite the city of Ponant, in the Brest harbor, since the 1970s it has concealed the operational base of nuclear missile submarines (SNLE).
“We were a few inches from the heads, we took our time, as if nothing had happened. We were told that there was no risk, that it was like wood. We were naive. Me, I have the impression that my integrity has been violated. »Gilbert, former pyrotechnician
This October day, they are seven to meet. Some haven’t crossed paths for a long time and seem happy to see each other again. Their age varies between 60 and 77 years, brown eyebrows and white eyebrows, painful looks and others darker, small men and big fellows. Some have turbined at the Capuchins, there was a time. “It was dirty at the time”, comments Pierre-Jean (the people questioned did not wish to give their name), the youngest of the band.
The members of the Ile-Longue Irradiated Collective came to unearth another past: that of their pyrotechnics workshop, where for more than twenty years, they worked without protection (except a helmet and a work), as close as possible to the radiation of the nuclear warheads that they maintained for the submarines of the French army.
Arrived from Burgundy in separate pieces, the warheads were assembled by the branch of the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) of Ile-Longue, where the soldiers had protection and a dosimeter to measure radiation. Before the heads were mounted on missiles and installed in submarines, they passed to the civilians of the pyrotechnics whose mission was to store and maintain them. But, for them, no protective measures or equipment. Nothing at all.
“An obstacle course”
Discreet, calm face, Jean-Yves was one of them. From 1987 to 2012, he worked, first as a plastics moulder, then as a driver of vehicles. “A few years ago I was diagnosed with lung cancer. And, in 2017, cancer of the larynx ”, describes the sixty-year-old. Exposed to solvents, asbestos, fiberglass and ionizing radiation, he has since sought recognition of the second disease as an occupational disease.
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