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Europe’s struggle to find a solution to nuclear waste disposal

Burying the atom: Europe struggles to dispose of nuclear waste Political opposition, not technical hurdles, poses biggest challenge to finding permanent storage sites for deadly radioactive material.
Politico, By KALINA OROSCHAKOFF AND MARION SOLLETTY, 7/19/17,  URE, France — Half a kilometer underground in floodlit tunnels, a French government lab is testing the safety of a site intended to hold 80,000 cubic meters of deadly radioactive waste.

Crews drill barrel-sized openings into the sides of the shafts, dug deep into the earth not far from the small town of Bure, in northeastern France. The containers will have to be retrievable for a century, in case better technologies for dealing with radioactive materials are developed. Barring such a discovery, the idea is for the waste to spend the next 100,000 years underground.

The technical hurdles will be the easy bit. Far more difficult for France’s radioactive waste management agency, Andra, will be overcoming political opposition to the construction of the site — of any site — intended to serve as the final resting place for tons of radioactive waste.

Six decades after the construction of the first wave of nuclear power plants, no country has opened a permanent storage site. Spent nuclear fuel and other contaminated material — deadly byproducts of electricity generation — remain stockpiled in temporary locations around Europe and the world, sometimes alongside the reactors where they were used.

The problem is only getting more urgent as power plants across the world near the end of their lives and Western Europe cuts back on nuclear electricity generation.

In the EU alone, more than 50 of the 129 reactors currently in operation could shut down by 2025, Energy and Climate Action Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete said recently. “These reactors will need to be decommissioned, and the radioactive waste generated in this process will need to be safely managed.”

The stakes are less technical than political. The dispute goes to the heart of a running debate over the sustainability of nuclear power. Failing to resolve it would leave the industry vulnerable to its critics, who argue that the technology is so inherently risky — and dirty — that it cannot be relied on to generate electricity, even to combat climate change.

The European Commission is keen to hurry countries along. On July 13, it escalated an infringement procedure against Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Italy and Portugal, pushing them to fully comply with the bloc’s radioactive waste rules and inform Brussels of their national nuclear waste management programs, which were originally due by August 23, 2015. Only Finland, set to open the world’s first final repository early in the next decade, has a plan it can implement.

Experts agree that today’s stop-gap solutions are unsustainable — and more dangerous than building long-term depositories deep underground where radioactive material can spend tens of thousands of years decaying, protected from natural disasters and out of reach of criminals and terrorists………

The issue is a headache for Nicolas Hulot, France’s new environment minister and a former green campaigner, who is part of the government that will have to give the final approval for the site. France is scaling back nuclear from 75 percent of power production to 50 percent by 2025, but it will still need to find a permanent storage site for the waste its plants produce.

Hulot expressed concerns about the site in Bure in 2016. “We can’t impose [such a project] on a local population just because they live in a remote area, without consulting them, without transparency,” he said on French TV.

On June 2, anti-nuclear campaigners wrote an open letter to Hulot asking him to stop the project. Since taking office, he has mostly kept quiet about the subject, but in a recent interview with Ouest-France, a regional newspaper, he vowed to ensure the waste will be stored with “absolute safety.”

The project still faces serious safety challenges, including fire risks, the French nuclear safety authority concluded in a recent assessment. On July 17, Andra pushed back a self-imposed deadline to submit a formal authorization request for the project by a year, to mid-2019.

Outreach

The government has responded to the protest with careful — and very public — safety tests, and an emphasis on its economic benefits for the region. “The project relies on 20 years of research,” said David Mazoyer, the site’s director. “Every scenario is studied with maximum security margins.” Some tests even involve releasing radioactive particles to track their movement in the surrounding clay.

The government has also splashed cash around — €30 million a year as “accompanying measures” for each of the two districts neighboring the site. “People don’t support the project for free,” said Gérard Longuet, a senator from the region and a key project supporter. “They support it because it boosts the area.”

So far, the effect of the outreach is, at best, mixed.

A 2016 poll commissioned by Andra found that 59 percent of local residents said they trust the agency to manage the site. But 63 percent expressed concerns over safety issues, and 76 percent said they think the project is dangerous for the environment.

“When you are listening to Andra, everything is all fine and rosy,” said Jean-Francois Bodenreider, an anti-nuclear campaigner and local resident. But, “they have no control over this,” said his wife Marie-Eve Bodenreider. An anti-nuclear sign hangs outside their physiotherapy practice in Gondrecourt-le-Château.

The site currently employs 370 people, with construction work foreseen to employ more than 2,000. But opponents say the jobs have yet to materialize. “The only jobs here are for security guards,” said Labat, the local resident and demonstrator. “They are everywhere!”

Birth of a movement

If German history is any guide, the French government will not have an easy time at the Bois Lejuc………..

‘Back on the streets’

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision, after Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster, to shutter the country’s last reactor by 2022 has taken some of the wind out of the opposition’s sails.

The challenge facing the anti-nuclear movement now will be “whether you can switch gears from blockade mode to having a constructive argument about how to best deal with the final storage issue,” Harms said…….. http://www.politico.eu/article/europes-radioactive-problem-struggles-dispose-nuclear-waste-french-nuclear-facility/

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July 21, 2017 - Posted by | EUROPE, wastes

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