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The nuclear power dilemma: where to put the lethal waste?

The nuclear power dilemma: where to put the lethal waste
France is exploring new ways to dispose of radioactive materials but public opposition is as fierce as ever, Ft.com 
Anna Gross in Chooz and Sarah White in Bure 6 Feb 22, 
Every morning, Benoit Gannaz places a small black device in his breast pocket to make sure his work is not killing him. Like every worker at the Chooz A nuclear power facility in northern France, he carries a detector that measures ionising radiation levels at all times. The reactor was turned off more than three decades ago and the most hazardous materials removed soon after, but nobody here is taking any chances — least of all the project manager overseeing the challenging and lengthy process of decommissioning Chooz A. Gannaz’s job is to ensure the remaining hazardous materials on site are removed and stored away safely now that the lifecycle of the reactor is at an end. ………….

…………….. as momentum grows for a new generation of nuclear power plants in Europe and elsewhere, there is little discussion of the huge costs and complexity of dismantling the plants at the end of their approximately 50-year lifespan. And nobody has yet given a satisfactory answer to the question of what to do with thousands of metric tonnes of high-level nuclear waste, some of which can remain radioactive, and thereby lethal, for up to 300,000 years.

A quarter-million metric tonnes of spent fuel rods are believed to be spread across 14 countries worldwide, mostly collected in cooling pools at closed-down nuclear plants, as engineers and waste specialists puzzle over how to dispose of them permanently. Many believe these are sitting ducks for terrorist organisations and that they could potentially cause catastrophic spills or fires. The cost of maintaining these sites can be extraordinary, and last for decades. Sellafield in the UK, for example, contains the largest stock of untreated nuclear waste on earth, including 140 tonnes of plutonium. Though the plant was shut down in 2003, it remains the biggest private employer in Cumbria. More than 10,000 people continue to undertake a colossally expensive clean-up that is expected to take more than 100 years and cost above £90bn.

“Nowhere in the world has anyone managed to create a place where we can bury extremely nasty nuclear waste forever,” says Denis Florin, partner at Lavoisier Conseil, an energy-focused management consultancy in Paris. “We cannot go on using nuclear without being adult about the waste, without accepting we need to find a permanent solution.” With the Chooz A reactor, France is attempting to do just that — and in the process create a prototype for how decommissioning could be done more efficiently. If it succeeds, it could help convince environmentalists that nuclear power has a part to play in creating a greener planet. But there is still a heavy dose of popular opposition to the best option there is on the table for the waste: burying it.

The legacy of a spent reactor The challenge with cleaning up Chooz A is not so much the site itself as the materials once contained within. The facility was shut in 1991, and within three years 99.9 per cent of the most highly radioactive materials had been evacuated to a specialist plant 620km away in La Hague, in the north-west of France. According to French law, the most highly radioactive elements of a plant, the fuel and the rods, should be removed as quickly as possible once the plant has been shut down — in stark contrast to policy in most other parts of the world, where the most hazardous products are handled last.

Decommissioning a reactor

Click on the numbers to see the process in sequence (Interactive graphic on original)

Some of these products have since been recycled. In a process pioneered by France, many of the uranium, plutonium and fission chemicals have been reprocessed into new fuel at the La Hague site, while waste chemicals that cannot be reused have been vitrified, or turned into glass, for short-term storage in shallow sites underground. Though EDF says the 23,000 tonnes of spent fuel it has reprocessed at La Hague are enough to power France’s nuclear fleet for 14 years, critics point to the fact that the fuel can only be reused once and the process itself creates yet more radioactive waste, without providing a long-term solution.

The dismantling of the rest of Chooz A began in 2007, after it received legal permission from the state, and is due to be completed by 2024, at a total cost of €500mn. But the most hazardous waste removed from the site will remain radioactive for centuries to come, and perhaps millennia. “Only a state or a religion will live as long as the waste, and maybe not even them,” says Florin. Countries have toyed with ejecting such waste into space or burying it deep under the seabed, but these ideas were eventually deemed either impossible or too dangerous. Only one long-term solution is broadly considered safe and feasible: deep geological repositories, where radioactive material can be stored several hundred metres below ground in formations of clay, rock salt and granite that have not moved for millions of years.

But no one has yet managed to do it. The US has come close; it pumped $15bn into a project to bury waste beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but the initiative was eventually abandoned in the face of intense and sustained public backlash. Similar opposition from local communities has dogged attempts to find burial sites in Germany, the UK and Japan. Some countries have earmarked provisional sites to try again. After a decades-long planning and negotiation process with a remote island community, Finland will bury its radioactive waste in copper tubes in a tomb 1,400 feet below the granite bedrock in Olkiluoto island. The burial site is expected to begin operation in 2023.

France has identified its own site, just outside Bure, 300km east of Paris, in which radioactive waste might be entombed. Consisting of a research centre sitting above a web of tunnels and vaults almost 500 metres below ground, the Cigeo project has so far cost €2.5bn and involved 25 years of research.

The French government is due to decide this year whether to declare the site officially viable as a storage option, setting in motion another sequence of construction and authorisation stages that would lead to the first toxic samples being deposited between 2035 and 2040. The ambition is to seal all the tunnels irreversibly from 2150, with residues encased in blocks of cement or steel within the ultimate barrier — a subterranean layer of clay with the ideal properties to entrap any material that eventually seeps out. This seeping material should lose its radioactive qualities within the 100,000 years it would take them to permeate other strata,,,………………https://www.ft.com/content/246dad82-c107-4886-9be2-e3b3c4c4f315?segmentid=acee4131-99c2-09d3-a635-873e61754ec6

February 7, 2022 - Posted by | France, wastes

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