Will Bure become the French Yucca Mountain?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(February 1, 2002) One issue in the run-up to this year's French elections is nuclear waste. Abandoning the search for a granite "laboratory" in favor of a subsurface site for "long-term interim" waste storage could be one outcome of Socialist-Green coalition negotiations. This could, however, leave Bure as the only site being studied for a deep geologic repository - a French version of Yucca Mountain.

(562.5369) WISE Amsterdam - According to the French nuclear waste law of 1991, two "laboratory" sites must be chosen to "study" the deep burial of nuclear waste: one in clay and one in granite. Bure is the clay "laboratory" - the site and the protests were the subject of a special feature in WISE News Communique issue 550.

Construction at Bure has recently been recommenced after a halt since 3 December 2001 when an employee broke both legs and one arm after falling 11 meters from scaffolding used in excavating the main shaft. At the time of the accident, the main shaft was 150 meters deep and the auxiliary shaft 83 meters deep. The "laboratory" is to be built at a depth of 490 meters, so there is still a considerable distance to go.

Goodbye Granite?
Attempts to find a granite site have resulted in failure after failure. The two sites first suggested following a "mediation mission" 1993 were rejected for geological reasons. A further "Granite Mission" in 2000 was met by massive protests and failed to find a site (see WISE News Communique 550.5284, "The history of the French waste policy").

Now it seems that the granite option may be quietly dropped. In an interview with Nucleonics Week 24 January, Industry Secretary Christian Pierret said that his Socialist Party is close to agreement with the Greens (their coalition partners in the current government) to abandon the quest for a second deep laboratory. Instead they plan a "subsurface" facility a few tens of meters underground, possibly built into a hillside.

The "subsurface" facility would be classed as a "very long term storage facility" (ETLD) rather than a final repository, since it is supposed to be "retrievable" - i.e. the waste can, at least in theory, be removed at a later date. In this way Pierret hopes to avoid it being seen as a "dump" where dangerous nuclear waste is buried "out of sight, out of mind."

Earthquake-prone sites back in the running?
This also means that sites previously rejected for permanent disposal of nuclear waste could be back in the running. A hill near Marcoule, rejected in 1998 because of tectonic activity (i.e. the possibility of earthquakes), could now be considered for a "subsurface" facility.

Another possible site mentioned in the Nucleonics Week article is Cadarache. This also lies in an earthquake zone - indeed the nearby MOX fabrication facility is being forced to close because of earthquake risks (see WISE News Communique 533.5192, "France: MOX facility at Cadarache at risk").

The French Yucca Mountain?
With French presidential elections coming up in April and parliamentary elections in June, the pressure is on for the Socialists and Greens to come up with a compromise position on nuclear issues.

While Noël Mamère, the Greens' presidential candidate, has publicly called for a halt to Bure, Socialists such as Pierret want work at Bure to continue. Indeed, Pierret hopes that additional "long-term interim" proposals could take the heat off Bure and help retain local support for the "laboratory".

The end result of Pierret's scenario could be that Bure, just like Yucca Mountain in the USA, could remain the only French site being studied for permanent disposal of high-level nuclear waste - something that local politicians find hard to accept.

Meanwhile, doubts remain about Bure's geological suitability. Retired geologist André Mourot discovered a geological map of the area containing fault lines that had been omitted from the map produced by the French nuclear waste authority ANDRA. When he protested, the fault lines were reinstated, only to disappear again in a later edition of the map (see WISE News Communique 550.5285, "Geological problems at Bure").

Using an eraser to remove "inconvenient" fault lines from a geological map is one thing; overcoming the differences between the Socialists and Greens will be trickier. The likely outcome of the coalition negotiations will be to fudge the issue with an "agreement to disagree", according to Géraud Guibert, national secretary of the Socialist Party.



  • Web site www.andra.fr, 21 January 2002
  • Nucleonics Week, 24 January 2002
  • AFP, 22 January 2002
  • Libération, 25 January 2002

Contact: WISE Amsterdam