Intelligent Energy

What France plans to do with its nuclear waste

Posting in Design

France's long-term storage plan for nuclear power waste moves along. American radioactive waste sits in wait for a permanent home. As a U.S. government panel continues digging for a solution, scientists advise an attitude adjustment.

France produces about 80 percent of its electricity through nuclear energy.

Considered a world leader in the technology, the country has 58 nuclear power plants. In 2025, France may also have one of the first long-term geological repositories for radioactive waste. The country has about 44,300 cubic meters of the troublesome stuff now, 2,300 of which is high-level waste.

Declan Butler reports for Nature:

The high-level waste includes the radioactive fission products caesium-134, caesium-137 and strontium-90, and minor actinides such as curium-244 and americium-241. Most nuclear fuel in France is reprocessed to extract useful uranium and plutonium, and to concentrate the waste. Although this high-level material comprises just 0.2% of France's nuclear waste by volume, it accounts for 95% of its total radio­activity.

At about 1,000 sites around the country, France holds nuclear waste of various classifications, managing the materials according to their radiation levels and half-lives. For instance, there are disposal sites in Soulaines (for low- and medium-level radioactive substances with shorter half lives) and east of Paris, the Morviliers site holds very low-level wastes.

Butler takes a tour of the on-site laboratory for a future subterranean storage space for high- and medium-level wastes. The facility would exist about 1,600 feet underground near the town of Bure, encapsulated in 150-million-year-old rock (that according to French geologists hasn't moved around much in the last 20 million years nor is expected to anytime soon). Testing the rock, a type of clay, and their containment technology, ANDRA's, the French National Radioactive Waste Management Agency, lab research bill comes in at around $130 million each year.

Once in operation, the plant's itinerary for high-level waste would include vitrification (shown right), a process that would turn the liquid nuclear waste into glass. They would then pour the molten glass into *stainless steel casks placed within steel barrels and inject them (with the help of robots) into horizontal boreholes drilled about 130 feet into the rock. (*edit)

The site will compress mid-level waste, which often includes exposed equipment, into steel canisters and then entomb them within concrete inside the tunnels. The specially designed canisters would prevent being heated by the radioactive decay occurring within them so that their outside surface temperature wouldn't exceed 194 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the geologists, at this temperature, the canisters wouldn't pose a fracture risk to the rock.

While not completely absent, public and political battles opposing nuclear energy are less intensely heated in France than in the U.S. If the French National Assembly approves of the Bure site and its storage plan in 2016, construction is expected to begin the following year.

In comparison, the United States, generating 796,751 megawatt hours in 2009, gets about 20 percent of its power via 104 nuclear plants.

And what is the U.S. planning for its radioactive waste?

That continues to be more up in the air than under solid ground, should we find, approve, and publicly accept any.

Earlier this year Yucca Mountain was buried as a geological storage option. A judge subsequently ruled that the Department of Energy must allow Yucca's operating license to pass through Congress. Even so, the DOE already established a Blue Ribbon Commission to figure out what comes after Yucca.

But 16 scientists writing in the journal Science on Friday warn that as the Commission focuses on the technical details, they might overlook important social and political factors to the disposal problem. Tackling the country's mistrustful attitude toward nuclear waste, they suggest, is necessary for the U.S. to achieve a rebirth of nuclear power.

Co-author Tom Leschine of the University of Washington provides an example:

Public mistrust has been fueled by decades of failed attempts to effectively work with those affected, says Leschine. That mistrust, he adds, “is arguably among the chief reasons for the relative lack of progress. Washington State’s Hanford Site, the nation’s most contaminated, embodies well the twin challenges of technological limitations and both social and political discord."

The Blue Ribbon Commission is scheduled to have a final disposal report by the end of 2011. In the meantime, about 121 temporary facilities in 39 states will contain, often begrudgingly, more than 60,000 tons of our nuclear waste.

Related on SmartPlanet:

Images: We El, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Hanford
Via: Nature

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure