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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.

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.

Cobalt60 years
Plutonium24,000 years
Uranium 2384 billion years

Storage problems
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.


"The International Conference on Nuclear Power for the 21st Century was held in Paris on 21 and 22 March 2005, attended by Ministers, high-ranking officials and experts from 74 States and 10 international organizations. The conference was organised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and hosted by the Government of France in co-operation with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the NEA."

http://www.parisnuclear2005.org/accueil.htm Nuclear Power for the 21st Century

http://www.parisnuclear2005.org/deroulement/declaration-finale-ang.pdf Statement

http://www.nea.fr/ Sponsor NEA/AEN

Chernobyl still is affecting France 20 years later. Court battles continue over whether the incidence of cancer increased due to the event. In the days following April 26, 1986, a radioactive cloud drifted over central Europe, dumping contaminated rain.

Scientists today are investigating thyroid cancer levels in Corsica, a Mediterranean island that is half French, half Italian territory. For one week the radioactive cloud hovered over Corsica. Cesium 137 levels in goats' milk reached toxic levels, but the fact was kept quiet. The French health department did not issue warnings against eating fresh produce. Today, thyroid cancer rates on Corsica are much higher than on the mainland.

Even now, French nuclear officials deny that Chernobyl is the cause of the increase in cancer rates in France.

One of the four reactors at Chernobyl, Ukraine, exploded 20 years ago today. The nuclear fuel burned for four days, spewing radioactive smoke. The toxicity was equal to 200 Hiroshima bombs. 130,000 people were evacuated.

Ken Silverstein wrote an interesting article entitled The French Nuclear Lesson http://www.energycentral.com/site/newsletters/ebi.cfm?id=32 in which he reports that the French are embracing nuclear energy. As usual, his thoughtful and thorough commentary brings in perspectives from both sides. Ken was a long-time utility industry analyst before taking over Energy Biz, http://www.energycentral.com/centers/energybiz/ a new magazine for utilities that doesn't hide its pro-nuclear position.

I am opposed to the development of nuclear power as an answer to the energy crisis. It is far too dangerous, given the reality that we have no long-term answer to getting rid of nuclear waste. I am hopeful that the sun and the wind can give us power if we will only make the commitment to harness it.

Insightful. I have been to the Yucca MTn. project.
The problem remains the same--until we have a solution to the waste, should we continue to use nuclear power? Our children's children are the recipients of our misuse of the planet.

I think France needs to change their dependence on Nuclear Energy and try to use natural energy resources like solar and wind.

Remember, the French state is the ultimate nuclear terrorist, blowing up the Rainbow Warrior protest ship in Auckland harbour, killing a Greenpeace photographer.

Everything about nuclear power breeds fear and the whole industry is obviously totally unsustainable and against nature.

Every time a dollar is spent on nuclear power, it is cash diverted away from finding a real solution via renewables.

Volcanic dispersal of radioactive waste
citation: /krystalmontgomery

Etna, Sicily, Italy June 15, 2001 June 20, 2001 37.7N, 15.0E
Lopevi, Central Islands, Vanuatu June 8, 2001 June 15, 2001 16.507S, 168.346E
[lengthy list omitted by Editor]

I would recommend any of these volcanoes as suitable dump sites for solid radioactive waste. Surrounding populations could be supplied with dosimetry monitoring equipment if the volcano erupts and until the subsequent dispersal washes away.
Further populations would be insured against uninhabitability and loss of health with negative land rent.

After decades of opposition to nuclear fission for electricity generation, I have changed my mind. Reason? Global warming. We must bend every effort to avoid further exacerbating the greenhouse effect. That means turning to power generation which does not release greenhouse gases, INCLUDING, AS A BETTER RESORT, nuclear fission. Store the wastes, and avoid meltdowns, and avert a warming disaster. If we can avoid a warming disaster, we can then phase out nuclear fission, and somehow store the wastes. Otherwise, all bets are off. Reading assignment: SIX DEGREES, by Mark Lynas.