Vive la Nucleair Waste: France Deals with Legacies of its Nuclear Programs
France gets the majority of its power from nuclear plants. Parliament issued a report in March, 2005, on the problem of France's radioactive waste. Its recommendations confirm the status quo: waste storage and decontamination research.
March 19, 2005
France gets the majority of its power from nuclear reactors. In the mid 1950s, over feeble public dissent, the country's leadership made that commitment.
Today, France is dealing with the legacy of its nuclear programs. Waste is stored in large facilities, while scientists search for ways to make it less deadly.
Parliament issued a report in March, 2005, on the issue of France's nuclear waste. Its recommendations confirm the status quo: waste storage and decontamination research.
The cost of waste disposal -- hundreds of billions of euros -- is being passed along to ratepayers. High rates aren't the only legacy of 50 years of nuclear power. Citizens and scientists alike are concerned about security, groundwater contamination, and storage.
Highly radioactive materials, such as spent fuel rods, are stored in The Hague and at the Marcoule nuclear facility, on the Rhone River near the southern city of Orange.
The director of the Commissariat a l’Energie Atomique (CEA) at the Marcoule facility, Loic Martin-Deidier, recalls the enthusiasm for quickly launching civil and military nuclear programs. At the time, he says, "they weren't thinking 40 years ahead."
Half a century later, nuclear waste continues to grow. Rods from atomic reactors aren't the only waste France has to deal with.
Nuclear reactors and laboratories built during the nuclear boom times are being dismantled. Everything from contaminated parts to rubber gloves must be disposed of. Workers meticulously examine each item using remote-controlled cameras. Color-coded images reveal spots of radioactive contamination on items such as bolts, tools, conveyor belts, clothing, and medical equipment.
Some items can be cleaned. Robots stuff the rest into special barrels for eternal storage.
Every day, about ten shipping containers arrive on trucks at the Soulaines-Dhuys storage facility outside Troyes, in the province of Ardennes, 180 kilometers east of Paris. On board are barrels of waste that isn't radioactive enough to be stored at Marcoule. Every year, 15,000 cubic meters of waste contaminated with uranium, plutonium and tritium arrive here.
The 350-acre site is like an above-ground Yucca Mountain. Construction cranes hover above a hundred bunker-like cement blocks already filled with barrels encased in concrete. In 60 years, the cranes' job will be done, the 400-bunker facility will be full, and the entire facility will be covered with a concrete lid. What then?
The Soulaines-Dhuys site will enter a 300-year surveillance phase. After that, the plan is to observe the site until the stored waste loses its radioactivity.
The initial 300 years is just the beginning. Even moderately radioactive plutonium retains hazardous for 24,000 years. Skeptics wonder if future generations will follow the plan -- or even remember where the site is located.
Underground storage facilities
Researchers seeking better ways to store waste are looking 450 meters underground. They believe a certain kind of clay is capable of preventing leaks from stored containers.
A laboratory near Bure, in the province of Meuse, has been working on it. When its tests conclude in 2006, the lab is likely to become a storage site for long-lived and highly radioactive waste.
Residents of the quiet little town, located between Paris and Nancy in the northeast corner of France, are not enthusiastic about that idea. They fear the potential for contaminating the surface aquifers found during the lab's construction.
Dependent on nuclear power
In the end, locals may have little say in the matter. In 2002, France stored 978,000 cubic meters of waste. In 2020, the annual amount is expected to be 1.9 million cubic meters.
The country is far behind most of its European neighbors in renewable energy development. It has meager fossil fuel resources, such as coal or gas. The country is, for the foreseeable future, dependent on nuclear power.
Meanwhile, keeping the lights on means the waste keeps coming.