France's nuclear program can be said to have really started when the G1 reactor at Marcoule came into service in 1956. Although it was connected to the national grid, its true purpose was the production of plutonium for the needs of the country's nuclear arms program. Plutonium was separated at the UP1 reprocessing plant (UP stands for "usine de plutonium" or plutonium factory) at Marcoule, before being used as raw material for nuclear warheads.

In the next 20 years, the CEA (France's Atomic Energy Commission) developed a powerful nuclear industry of which one of the objectives remained the production of plutonium, not only for bombs but also for a new generation of fast-breeder reactors of the Superphénix type. These so-called "fast neutron" reactors would, in the course of their service life, produce even more plutonium than they consumed. Plutonium was considered to be an inexhaustible energy resource.

Today everything has changed, and Superphénix has been shut down permanently due to lack of economic interest and numerous technical problems. EDF assigns a value of zero to its plutonium stocks in its accounts and the price of natural uranium has fallen spectacularly over the last 20 years, rather than increasing.

Curiously, "reprocessing" continues at La Hague (France) as though nothing had changed. This study does not consider the economic, environmental or strategic implications of France's nuclear policy. The report simply draws up a balance of the production of irradiated fuels, of plutonium separation and of the use of the uranium and plutonium separated during fuel processing.

What is the status of the "doctrine" of plutonium and uranium "recycling" today?

Some key figures (rounded, as of 31.12.98)

I. Production and separation of plutonium

1. A total of around 30,000 tonnes of irradiated fuel have been unloaded
from nuclear reactors in France.

2. A total of 17,000 tonnes of irradiated fuelattributed to France have been
reprocessed at Marcoule and La Hague.

3. A total of more than 84 tonnes of plutonium(38 % of total contained in
unloaded irradiated fuels) have been extracted at Marcoule and La Hague
for France.

4. In all, French irradiated fuels still storedin the spent fuel pits of civil
reactors or at La Hague amount to almost 140 tonnes of plutonium
(62 % of total content of unloaded irradiated fuels).

5. A total of around 1 tonne of plutoniumis contained in waste.

6. A total of 1 kg of plutonium has been released into the
environment (1) during reprocessing at La Hague.

II. "Recycling" of plutonium

1. Around 17 tonnes of plutoniumhave been used under France's fast

2. Around 23 tonnes of plutoniumhave been used in the form of MOX
fuel in conventional reactors.

3. Around 2 tonnes of plutoniumfrom EDF reactors have been "recycled"
within France's nuclear armsprogram.

III. Separation and "recycling" of uranium

1. A total of around 16,600 tonnes of uraniumhave been separated
duringreprocessing of French irradiated fuels.

2. A total of around 1,600 tonnesof uranium from reprocessing have
been enriched and re-used.

"Recycling" rate for plutonium and uranium

"Recycling" rate:

  • the total of plutonium separatedfrom irradiated fuels attributed to France (< 1 % of contents in nuclear material) remains below 50 %(< 42 tonnes out of 84 tonnes);

  • the total of plutonium producedin French reactors is less than 20 %(42 tonnes out of 224 tonnes);

  • the total of uranium separatedfrom irradiated fuel attributed to France remains
    ca 10 %(1,600 tonnes out of 16,000 tonnes);

  • the total of uranium containedin French irradiated fuels is hardly more than 5 %.

The stock of French plutonium, more than 40 tonnes at the end of 1998 (2), is more than the total of 33 tonnes produced by the UP2-800 reprocessing plant at La Hague since its start up in 1994. In other words, a plant was brought into service - at very high cost - to extract a product that was put on the shelves.

Recycling of the nuclear material contained in France's spent fuels is clearly no more than a myth.

The full report (in French) can be downloaded as PDF file (23 p., 266 Ko)

Notes :
1. A few thousandths of a gram of plutonium inhaled is sufficient to cause lung cancer
2. To which should be added some 35 tonnes of plutonium of foreign origin stored in France at present