Deep under rolling green farmlands in northeastern France, scientists study clay geology to see if it can safely house the country’s deadliest nuclear waste. Above ground, some people in the village of Bure are saying: Non!
France, which gets 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy -- the most in the world -- is seeking the safest option for its mounting stockpiles of highly radioactive and long-life nuclear waste at a manageable cost for operators Electricite de France SA, Areva SA (AREVA) and CEA. The planned repository, half a kilometer, or a third of a mile, underground has provoked noisy protests with the first meeting on public consultations canceled in May. A second is set for June 17.
“They can scream all they want,” Christian Bataille, a Socialist lawmaker who has spearheaded the project for almost a quarter century, said in an interview. “In the end, parliament will have the last word.”
The installation, known as Cigeo, is being designed to hold French military and civilian atomic waste classified as having intermediate and high levels of radioactivity, some of which can remain dangerous for more than 100,000 years. Cost estimates range from 14 billion euros ($18.5 billion) to 55 billion euros.
The French efforts mirror those in the U.S., U.K., Germany and Finland. The U.S. is weighing options after President Barack Obama withdrew support for a facility in the Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The U.K. is asking towns to make proposals for sites. In Germany, which plans to close all reactors by 2022, a repository site in Lower Saxony on which it has spent more than 1 billion euros was put on hold after public opposition. Finland plans to store its most toxic nuclear waste on the island of Olkiluoto.
The French project has cost about 1.5 billion euros since 1991 and now runs at about 100 million euros a year, according to Andra, the national nuclear waste management agency. The amount doesn’t include the 400 million euros in subsidies since 2000 for the two administrative districts straddled by the site.
A vast majority of France’s nuclear refuse comes from the power industry. The basic inventory of about 80,000 cubic meters of waste includes 10,000 cubic meters of highly radioactive material and 70,000 cubic meters of mid-range matter.
About 30 percent of the highly radioactive waste and 60 percent of that classified in the mid-range destined for Cigeo have already been produced. They are now mostly stored in above-ground installations in La Hague on the English Channel and Marcoule and Cadarache in southern France.
Some of this waste has been around for years, like the 10,000 cubic meters of dried radioactive sludge wrapped in bitumen in some 72,000 metal barrels at La Hague and Marcoule.
Andra envisages a “gradual” construction of the repository over a century with 5 percent of the deadliest waste buried and monitored for 50 years before the rest is added. If parliament approves the project, construction would begin in 2019 with the waste buried starting as early as in 2025.
Andra estimated in 2003 the repository would cost between 16 billion euros and 55 billion euros depending on what went in it. The price tag is lowest when spent fuel is reprocessed and reused. Operators like EDF put the cost at 14.1 billion euros.
“These projects are unique, which makes planning and cost estimates difficult,” said Michael Siemann, head of radiological protection and radioactive waste management at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s in Paris. “No matter how high the cost, it’s only a small proportion of the amount earned from nuclear energy. It’s very dangerous to push the question for what’s the cost of safety.”
Andra came up with a 36-billion-euro estimate in 2009 for a safer design that makes it possible to remove the waste if needed -- as required by French law. The plan, which took into account findings from the underground lab in Bure, was deemed “feasible” by the regulator Autorite de Surete Nucleaire.
“The costs for storage are in the process of being re-evaluated,” EDF Chief Executive Officer Henri Proglio told shareholders May 30. “The provisions we have set aside will be reviewed in the future if necessary.”
By law, EDF -- operator of all 58 French nuclear reactors -- would bear most of the cost of the repository. The utility set aside 7.1 billion euros by the end of last year for long-term radioactive waste management, its latest annual report shows.
The world’s largest power producer already faces an estimated investment of 55 billion euros through 2025 on safety, equipment upgrades and maintenance of its aging atomic facilities, the oldest of which is about 35 years old. The ASN tightened rules after the 2011 meltdown at Fukushima in Japan.
EDF is also seeking to extend its reactors’ lifetime to 60 years, which would generate more waste and raise disposal costs.
Investor worries about spending levels have weighed on the utility’s share price. EDF shares have tumbled more than 44 percent since the start of 2011.
France is in the midst of a national debate about future energy policy. The government will put forward legislation by year-end to outline the energy mix. President Francois Hollande has pledged to lower reliance on nuclear power.
This is feeding into uncertainty about how much nuclear waste would be stored in the repository. France’s nuclear industry holds out hope of developing so-called fourth generation reactors that will reduce nuclear waste.
Ultimately, the atomic regulator ASN will decide whether the project is safe enough to move ahead.
The ASN asked that Andra “pursue studies on technical options” for deep storage of spent fuel, which mostly isn’t considered waste in France because Areva reprocesses it to make so-called MOX fuel used by some EDF reactors. For the moment, spent fuel isn’t included on the repository list.
Allowing some types of bitumen-encased waste and spent fuel could raise the risks of fire and hydrogen explosions, said Yannick Rousselet, Greenpeace’s nuclear campaigner in France.
“It’s scandalous,” he said. “The industry is desperate to be able to say they have a solution for the waste. At the same time there are many, many questions left unanswered.”
France’s energy minister disagrees.
“Scientifically and technologically, geological storage is the safest solution,” Energy Minister Delphine Batho said during a visit with reporters of the installation in February.
The European Union in 2011 required every member state to comply with the bloc’s new legislation on final nuclear waste storage by August 2013 and to produce detailed plans, cost estimates and time frames by 2015.
For the French Parliament, which pushed ahead with such storage disregarding conclusions from public consultations in 2006 that called for more research, the debate has reemerged.
In the current round of consultations, the first of a series of meetings was canceled amid stink bombs, tear gas and police presence in Bure, which has a population of 94.
“The public debate procedure has to be respected,” Batho said May 27 after clashes at Bure. “Everyone can express their opinion. No decision has been made.”
Organizers have now pledged to hold smaller, more discreet gatherings that will be better shielded from disruptions.
“We shouldn’t bury this waste,” said Father Pascal Lesuer, a priest for a village near Bure. “Even if it takes another 50 years, research should continue to find a better solution.”
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