Sunday, December 20, 2009

Nuclear Power and France

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Beyond Nuclear Fact Sheet

Nuclear Power and France: Setting the Record Straight


France gets nearly 80% of its electricity from its 58 nuclear reactors. However, such a heavy reliance on nuclear power brings with it many major, unresolved problems most especially that of radioactive waste. As a result, France has a hugely complex and unsolved radioactive waste problem.

1. France, like the U.S., has not solved its nuclear waste problem

A. The dirty and polluting process called reprocessing

    France reprocesses irradiated reactor fuel by soaking it in acid to extract plutonium and slightly enriched uranium. This results in massive releases of radioactive gases and liquids and the creation of solid wastes that place people and the environment at great risk. Reprocessing operations release larger volumes of radioactivity – typically by factors of several thousand – compared to radioactive releases from nuclear reactors.1
    France reprocesses reactor fuel at the vast La Hague facility on the Normandy coast. The so-called low-level liquid wastes from reprocessing are discharged into the English Channel and into the air. However, these "low-level" wastes still contain highly radioactive and often long-lived isotopes. Dumping these same wastes into the sea in containers would violate the1970 London Dumping Convention.2
    The liquid discharges from La Hague (and the UK. reprocessing plant at Sellafield) have resulted in contamination of area beaches and of seas as far as away as the Arctic Circle and are considered among the ten main anthropogenic sources of radioactive pollution of the world's oceans.3
    Two independent medical studies found elevated rates of leukemia in young people living around La Hague. (Similar leukemia clusters have also been recorded around the British reprocessing site at Sellafield which has turned the Irish Sea into one of the most radioactively contaminated bodies of water in the world).4
    The nuclear waste pumped into the sea from La Hague has been measured as 17 million times more radioactive than normal sea water according to an analysis by an independent French radiological laboratory.5
    La Hague routinely releases a radioactive cloud that is highly toxic. Concentrations of krypton-85 above the plant were found to register 90,000 times higher than natural radiation levels according to research by a Belgian laboratory. La Hague also releases all of its carbon-14 emissions into the air, identified by the French Nuclear Safety Center as the isotope in reprocessing discharges that is most damaging to human health.6
    France extracts plutonium through reprocessing to use as mixed-oxide (MOX) reactor fuel.
    For safety reasons, only 30% of a reactor core that can use MOX fuel is loaded with MOX. MOX reactors consume the plutonium fuel but the uranium-238 component of the fuel produces plutonium. Consequently, there is no net reduction of plutonium using MOX reactors. Waste fuel from MOX reactors is not reprocessed.7
    Less than 10 percent of France's nuclear electricity is produced by MOX reactors.8

Ninety-five percent of the mass of spent reactor fuel is uranium, contaminated with traces of fission products, plutonium and other radioactive materials. This contamination makes re-enrichment complex and costly. Therefore it is not re-used as fuel. Instead, France sends this contaminated uranium to Russia.9

B. No nuclear waste repository

    Reprocessing has created large quantities of solid waste contaminated with plutonium. This, along with highly radioactive vitrified waste, will need to be "stored" in a repository. The volume of these wastes is estimated to be at least 10 times greater than the volume of high-level waste.10
    France has faced public opposition to repositories and is characterizing only one – at Bure in northern France – that continues to face technical and political challenges and strong public opposition.11
    The vast majority of the uranium from reprocessing – non-fissile uranium-238 – will need to be disposed of as waste.
    The low- and intermediate-level waste dump sites that do exist – including in the important Champagne region – are leaking radioactivity into the ground water.12
    Much of the foreign waste resulting from reprocessing in France was never sent back to the country of origin despite a mandate to do so under French law. This has rendered the country a de facto dump site for its own and for foreign radioactive waste.
    Absent suitable disposal sites, the French nuclear reprocessing company, formerly COGEMA, discarded more than 100,000 casks of "low-level" radioactive waste from its uranium conversion plant into a nearby domestic waste dump.13

2. Reactors to bombs and the threat to security

    France has exported civilian nuclear technology and training to, or has engaged in nuclear cooperation with Pakistan, Israel, India and South Africa, all of which developed nuclear weapons.14
    France also exported nuclear technology to Iran, which had an active nuclear weapons program at least until 2003 according to U.S. intelligence reports.15
    France delivered and built Saddam Hussein's Osirak reactor in Iraq that was subsequently bombed by Israel in 1981.16
    A confidential report by the French electricity company, Électricité de France, withheld from the public but containing vital safety information, was leaked by a French activist in May 2006.17 An analysis of the report showed that the EPR – planned for Calvert Cliffs, MD and five other U.S. nuclear power sites – would not withstand the impact from a commercial jet airliner.18
    France has actively exported reprocessing technologies to nations regardless of the proliferation impact (including to Israel and Iraq).19
    France manufactures MOX fuel at facilities in Belgium and southern France. This results in more than 10 tons of plutonium oxide powder – its most dangerous form – being transported from la Hague annually to these facilities.20
    A stockpile of more than 80 metric tons of plutonium has accumulated at La Hague. About 30 of these metric tons are of foreign origin. (The British Sellafield plutonium stockpile is even larger at 107 metric tons). The plutonium is stored in tens of thousands of containers representing a high security risk.21
    France has supported Japanese nuclear programs, especially reprocessing, and has, along with Great Britain, shipped MOX fuel elements to Japan. A French shipment made in 1999 contained 221 kilograms of plutonium in the MOX fuel.22


    French support of Japan's nuclear program has helped invite the temptation as well as the capability for Japan to make nuclear weapons. In 2002, the leader of the Japanese Liberal Party, Ichiro Ozawa, declared it would be easy for Japan to produce nuclear warheads from its plutonium supplies at civilian nuclear plants.23
    In early 2008, French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, peddled nuclear power in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere. The profits would go to French nuclear giant Areva which is more than 90% government-owned. The Washington Post described Sarkozy as "the world's most aggressive salesman for nuclear power." 24
    Enriching uranium for reactor fuel has produced depleted uranium (U-238 or DU) that remains hazardous for billions of years (DU half-life is 4.46 billion years). France, like all other countries, has no disposal solution for DU waste.

3. French nuclear power has been costly to taxpayers

    The economic penalty of reprocessing had been kept secret until a government-commissioned study in 2000. It concluded that reprocessing and the use of MOX fuel in France had raised the kilowatt-hour cost of nuclear-generated electricity and cost the country tens of billions of francs.25
    When evaluating the true costs of nuclear power in France, the entire nuclear complex must be considered. This includes: waste disposal, reactor decommissioning and dismantlement, uranium extraction and processing, reprocessing, MOX fuel production, accident and security risks, and significant health and genetic damage. Taken together, the costs of nuclear energy are enormous.26
    France banked on the plutonium "breeding" program as the basis for its massive nuclear power program. But uranium proved plentiful, plutonium uneconomic as a fuel and the country's flagship breeder reactor – the Superphenix – was a costly disaster. Over its 12 years of production, Superphenix produced just 8.2 TWh of electricity – a lifetime capacity of about six percent. (The U.S. breeder reactor – Fermi I – suffered a meltdown in 1966 and closed for good in 1972).27

4. Nuclear power is an unreliable choice under climate change

    Reactors rely on huge volumes of water for cooling. During droughts, insufficient water supplies cause reactors to shut down.
    During the heat wave of 2003, 17 French reactors were forced to power down or shut down completely as river water temperatures rose. France had no option but to import costly electricity from abroad.28
    When temperatures are high, reactors may need to discharge hotter water. France allowed this during the 2006 heat wave, but thermal discharges damage the surrounding aquatic environment and harm or drive away the species that inhabit it.29
    In May 2007, technical problems with steam generators at a number of French nuclear plants caused the country to import record levels of electricity, a problem exacerbated by sudden, unseasonable cold temperatures.30
    As climate change worsens, water shortages and heat waves will be more common making nuclear power an impractical option.

5. The French prototype reactor (EPR) is plagued with problems

    The EPR currently under construction in Finland (Olkiluoto-3) is already more than 25% over its projected $4 billion budget and at least two years behind schedule.31
    Progress on the EPR has been slowed by construction errors and technical failures including in key areas such as concrete pours and the stainless steel pipes that make up the main water coolant line.32


    An Areva official blamed delays and technical flaws on inexperienced contractors working for an industry that has been dormant in Europe for 20 years.33

6. The French do not love their nuclear power

    More than 50,000 French citizens in just two districts in north-eastern France have signed a petition to request a referendum on whether a nuclear waste dump would be sited in their area. This request has been ignored by French politicians.34
    More than 25,000 people demonstrated against new nuclear power in Cherbourg on the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident. Another 60,000 rallied in five cities in March 2007 in opposition to nuclear power. Fewer people rallied in the U.S. on the same day against the Iraq war.35
    Areva was voted one of the world's most irresponsible corporations at the 2008 Public Eye awards in Davos, Switzerland, largely due to its uranium mining record in the Niger. The company is held responsible for the failure to inform workers of the health risks, radioactive contamination of the air, water and soil, and "suspicious deaths among the workers, caused by radioactive dust and contaminated groundwater."36
    The highly active anti-nuclear network in France – Réseau Sortir du Nucléaire – includes 820 non-governmental organizations.37
    In a 2006 European poll, only 8% of the French population thought nuclear power was a solution to climate change.38
    An annual fall poll in France records as many as 61% of the population favoring a phase-out of nuclear energy despite France's reputation as a country that loves its nuclear power.39

Further Reading

France's Nuclear Fix? By Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D. Science for Democratic Action, Vol. 15, No.2. January 2008, at:

French Nuclear Reprocessing – Failure at Home, Coup d'Etat in the United States, by Shaun Burnie, at:  

The Cogema File, Safe EnergyCommunication Council, October 1, 2002, at:  

Sortir du Nucléaire Web site at: www.sortirdunuclé

1 Possible Toxic Effects from the Nuclear Reprocessing Plants at Sellafield (UK) and Cap de la Hague (France.) Scientific and Technological Options Assessment (STOA). European Parliament. November 2001. And at:  

2 Save our Seas. Greenpeace. And at:  

3 Arctic Adaptability, SEPA View, magazine of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Autumn 1999, pps 18-19. And at:  

4 Dominique Pobel, Jean-Francois Viel: "Case-control study of leukemia among young people near La Hague nuclear reprocessing plant: the environmental hypothesis revisited." British Medical Journal, No. 7074 Vol. 314, January 11, 1997. And at: http//www., And: A-V Guizard, O. Boutou, D. Pottier, X. Troussard, D. Pheby, G. Launoy, R. Slama, A. Spira and ARKM; "The incidence of childhood leukemia around the La Hague nuclear waste reprocessing plant (France): a survey for years 1978-1998, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, July 2001, Vol. 55, pp. 49-474. And at:  

5 Greenpeace press releases June 20, 1997 and May 27, 1999. And at:  

6 La Hague radioactive air 90,000 times higher than background. Greenpeace, November 9, 1998 and at: . And High levels of carbon contamination around La Hague and at: 

7 The Nuclear Alchemy Gamble: An Assessment of Transmutation as a Nuclear Waste Management Strategy. Hisham Zerriffi and Annie Makhijani, IEER, August 25, 2000. And see:  pages 55-56  (77-78 on PDF). And also, according to Dr. Arjun Makhijani, by email, president of Institute for Energy and Environmental Research at  

8 France's Nuclear Fix? page 5. Science for Democratic Action, Vol. 15. No. 2., January 2008. And at:  

9 Ibid. France's Nuclear Fix?

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 French Nuclear Reprocessing – Failure at Home, Coup d'Etat in the United States, page 5. Shaun Burnie. May 2007. And at:  

13 Ibid. The Cogema File. And see Plusieurs tones de déchets radioactifs dans une décharge de la Drome, Le Monde, July 22, 1999.

14 Israel's Nuclear Weapons Program, December 1997 at: and Pakistan Nuclear Weapons at: and Nuclear Power in France, Australia Uranium Association, December 2007 and at: and France bets on Indian non-alignment to sell arms and reactors, Agence France Presse, January 27, 2008 and at:  

15 Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities. National Intelligence Estimate. November 2007. And at:  

16 WMD Around the World: Osiraq/Tammuz I at: And On This Day: 1981: Israel bombs Baghdad nuclear reactor. BBC News. And at:  

17 Letter and report to the Director General of "la Sûréte Nucléaire er de la Radioprotection", from B. Lescoeur, EDF, February 22, 2003. And: EPR: polémique sur un scénario terroriste. Yves Miserey, Le Figaro, May 20, 2006 and at:

18 Assessment of the Operational Risks and Hazards of the EPR when Subject to Aircraft Crash, by John large and Associates, May 18, 2006. And at:

19 Ibid. Shaun Burnie.

20 The Transports in the French Plutonium Industry: A High Risk Activity. WISE Paris. Xavier Coeytaux, Yacine B. Faid, Julie Hazemann, Yves Marignac, Mycle Schneider. February 2003 for Greenpeace. And at:  

21 Ibid. France's Nuclear Fix?

22 Ban plutonium shipments, Greenpeace tells France, UK, Japan. July 8, 1999. And at:  

23 Japanese Nukes Could Counter China - Politician. Reuters. April 6, 2002. And at:  

24 Sarkozy pushes nuclear energy in the Mideast. Molly Moore. Washington Post. January 20, 2008, and at:  

25 Economic Forecast Study of the Nuclear Power Option. Jean-Michel Charpin et al. July 2000. And at:  

27 Low-Carbon Diet without Nukes in France. Annie and Arjun Makhijani. IEER. May 4, 2006 and at: And see also Answers.Com Wikipedia entry on Superphenix at: . And for Fermi meltdown, see: We Almost Lost Detroit, John G. Fuller. Ballantine Books, September 12, 1976.

28 Climate change puts nuclear energy into hot water. James Canter. International Herald Tribune. May 20, 2007. And at: 

29 Ibid. And see: Licensed to Kill: How the nuclear industry destroys endangered marine wildlife and ocean habitat to save money. Linda Gunter and Paul Gunter. 2001. And at:  

30 Ibid. International Herald Tribune, May 20, 2007.

31 Nuclear Bid to Rival Coal Chilled by Flaws, Delay in Finland. Alan Katz. September 5, 2007. And at:  And see: Olkiluoto – Scandal After Scandal at:  

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid.

34 France the Happy Atom's Land. Sortir du Nucléaire. And at:  

35 Ibid.

36 Public Eye People's Award and Global Award to Areva at:  

37 Ibid France the Happy Atom's Land.

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid.

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