Show the radioactive risk in the nuclear industry of the sixties

Show the radioactive risk in the nuclear industry of the sixties

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Against every danger ... protection

© CEA / J. Castan

Publication date: November 2019

Aurélien Portelli, teacher-researcher at MINES ParisTech - PSL / Frédérick Lamare, archivist of the CEA center in Marcoule

Historical context

At the start of the 1960s, the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) operated the first generation of industrial-scale reactors and a plutonium extraction plant in the Marcoule nuclear center (Gard department). This task falls to the Radiation Protection Service (SPR), which provides radiation protection for personnel, disposal of radioactive waste, decontamination of premises and equipment, and environmental monitoring.

The SPR is also responsible for educating workers and the general public about radioactive risks. The second, more specialized, is intended for nuclear workers.

The implementation of this program benefits from the artistic talents of Jacques Castan (1929-2014). By translating the doctrinal messages of the radiation protectionists, Castan delivers to us a world populated by disparate figures, from mythological tales, wonderful tales, science fiction or medieval imagination, as in this poster from 1962, entitled Against every danger ... protection!

Image Analysis

The poster features a welder and a Marcoule agent in the foreground. Each worker wears protective clothing adapted to his professional activity. Castan uses the same color palette to represent the two figures, dressed in white and red. The yellow color is used to represent the sparks which emerge from the welding station, the contents of the test tubes and the lines which surround them. The yellow is also reflected on the eye protection of the masks. The poster artist, using the same process to show the risk of burns and the radioactive risk, trivializes the latter. Radioactivity thus becomes a risk "like any other", against which the operator can protect himself by wearing the appropriate equipment.

In the background, a black knight appears, the position of whose arms resemble the wings of an airplane and the plume of smoke from a steam locomotive. These references to the aeronautics and rail sectors evoke the flagships of industrialization, as if to announce the success of the young nuclear industry. The black color of the breastplate, however, makes the image ambiguous. In the medieval imagination, the black knight indeed embodies an evil power that the hero must overcome to accomplish his quest. The romantic analogy between "evil" and risk here idealizes the daily activities of workers, equipped with their white and red "armor". However, if the equipment constitutes protection, it cannot eradicate the dangers which insidiously threaten officers. The knight, placed behind their backs, seems on the point of attacking them. It makes you wonder who will win in the end ...


Castan avoids brutally figuring out the radioactive risks and resorts to an unusual but striking comparison. This preventive approach is part of a context of changing representations. In the first half of the XXe century, poster artists use fear and violence as a springboard, not hesitating to show the aftermath of an accident. But at the turn of the fifties, they abandoned the dramatic images and preferred to represent the means of avoiding dangers.

Careful analysis shows, however, that violence is never completely removed from Castan's creations. The danger of irradiation or contamination is indeed sometimes repellent, sometimes attractive, and its threat must be kept at bay without being able to be eliminated. Such an ambiguity is to be compared with the definition of “sacred” proposed by René Girard, namely “everything that controls man, all the more surely that man believes himself to be more capable of controlling it ". In this sense, one should not get too close to the sacred, because it unleashes violence; but we should not stray too far from it either, as it is at the foundation of institutions, which protect against violence. Castan perceives this ambiguity by observing the work in workshops and laboratories. In the field, he interacts with the agents of the SPR, captures the technical realities, tries to translate their deep meaning. By rubbing shoulders with radiation protectionists, the designer captures their imaginations and in his illustrations disseminate the beliefs that guide their activity, the success of which is decisive for the future of nuclear power. Ensuring the protection of workers is not only a health issue, but also a condition for demonstrating to the public that the risks are under control and that the sector can continue to develop, at a time when anti-nuclear protest is almost non-existent.

  • Hiroshima
  • Nagasaki
  • poster
  • industry
  • energy
  • nuclear
  • radioactivity
  • working world
  • worker
  • knight


Nadia Blétry (2009). “This is not a risk. Posters for the prevention of occupational and health risks in France in the 20th century ”, Catherine Omnès, Laure Pitti (dir.). Workplace risk cultures and prevention practices. France in relation to neighboring countries, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 262 p., P. 155-172.

Boris Dänzer-Kantof, Félix Torres (2013). The energy of France. From Zoe to the EPR, the history of the nuclear program, Paris, Editions François Bourin, 703 p.

Jean-Pierre Dupuy (2010). The mark of the sacred, Paris, Flammarion, 280 p.

René Girard (2010). Violence and the sacred, Paris, Librairie Arthème Fayard / Pluriel (1st ed. 1972), 486 p.

Jean Rodier, Jacques Castan, Claude Guérin (1963). "Information and education in radiation protection". Scientific and technical information bulletin, No. 72-73, p. 91-98.

Sébastien Travadel, Aurélien Portelli, Claire Parizel, Franck Guarnieri (2017). "Figures of the infinitesimal. Radiation protection in pictures ”, Techniques & Culture, n ° 68, p. 110-129.

To cite this article

Aurélien PORTELLI - Frédérick LAMARE, "Showing the radioactive risk in the nuclear industry of the sixties"

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