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New nuclear debate in France

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(December 19, 1997) The overall strategy of France's nuclear power programme is under fire. It is difficult to reverse the long-term pro-nuclear strategy. But some changes are made. The new government is rethinking the whole nuclear policy, including plutonium production plus reuse and waste disposal.

(483/4.4807) WISE Amsterdam -The old French nuclear thinking was dominated by its passion for plutonium. But now the dream of fast breeders, which would burn the plutonium and breed more plutonium, has evaporated due to technical and economical problems. The closure of Superphenix meant a sharp blow to the nuclear lobby. Plutonium is now seen more and more as dangerous; for environmental and proliferation reasons. France is stockpiling growing amounts of separated plutonium (by now more than 50,000 kg plutonium) at its reprocessing plants in La Hague from its own nuclear program and from foreign spent nuclear fuel. But the MOX program in which the plutonium should be used is limited. The construction of a new reactor in Le Carnet, an EPR, is halted. Nuclear emissions from La Hague by Cogema are being critisized by the minister of environment. The government decided to postpone a decision on the construction of two underground laboratories until mid-1998. More resources will be devoted to long-term, above-ground storage of spent fuel and other nuclear waste.

A large group of new socialist members of parliament decided to oppose underground disposal. The old goal of nuclear waste disposal was based on the concept of: "out of sight, out of mind". The nuclear waste programme law from 1991 postponed a final decision on waste management until 2006. In the mean time more research into three disposal methods should be done, to be able to decide on a management strategy for High Level and Transuranic Waste. The three options are: transmutation; surface storage; underground storage. The Nuclear Waste Management Agency, Andra, wants to have all data available by that time, including on deep disposal. A group of more than 40 Socialist politicians protested that too much money went to deep storage research: more than half of the US$173 million waste budget. They also required the reopening of the public inquiry into siting of the planned underground laboratories. One site, approved by public inquiry, was found to be unsuitable by the independent National Evaluation Commission, responsible for monitoring the waste programme. In november the industry minister agreed to shift 15% of funding towards surface storage research.

A committee of the National Assembly has voted in favor of a proposal for a commission of inquiry into the health effects of nuclear facilities and waste disposal sites, as well as appropriate measures to reduce risks for inhabitants and environment. The socialist group in the National Assembly has decided to hold a debate on the entire nuclear power programme in the next weeks. By 2006 Electricité de France (EdF) must decide whether to replace the old nuclear reactors by new ones or to build some other kind of power plants, such as gas-fired combined heat-power ones. Problems or success with waste disposal will be crucial to the future of French nuclear power. That's why Andra and EdF are pushing to continue with construction of underground labs, as a guarantee of the credibility of waste policy, but also to continue research on other options. If parliament has not enough information on waste management options by 2006, it will likely postpone decision making. France has been critisized by the EU for its large dependancy of electric generation on nuclear, which is now about 80%.


  • Nature 27 november 1997, p.319,322
  • Nuclear Fuel 17 november 1997, p.9

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