November 2000

Dominique Voynet: Reprocessing of nuclear waste has no future

Les Echos, 31 October 2000
(French Daily Newspaper on Economic Affairs, translation by WISE-Paris)

[Posted 06/11/2000]

In an interview with "Les Echos", Dominique Voynet, France's Minster for Spatial Planning and Environment, relaunches the nuclear energy debate attacking, in particular, reprocessing of nuclear waste. She judges the costs of this activity - the very basis of which she contests - to be “enormous”, and thinks that it is “doomed” in the mid term, and even possibly in the short term. The Minister for Spatial Planning and Environment also calls for greater transparency in the reprocessing contracts between COGEMA and German or Japanese clients. And finally, Dominique Voynet categorically opposes any requests to increase the production capacity for MOX fuels using plutonium.

Backed up by a report from three economists looking at the future for nuclear electricity, commissioned by Prime Minister Jospin, France's Minister of the Environment, Dominique Voynet, wishes to relaunch the debate on the future of nuclear power, and especially that on waste reprocessing carried out by COGEMA at La Hague. COGEMA takes in spent nuclear fuels and recycles them, mainly into MOX fuel, a mixture of uranium and plutonium. After the resignation of the COGEMA president, Jean Syrota - one of the "pet hates» ("bêtes noires») of the ecologists - and the appointment of his replacement Anne Lauvergeon, relations between COGEMA and the Ministry of the Environment improved somewhat. In mid-1999, after a year of resistance, Dominique Voynet signed the decree allowing the company to sell MOX fuel to Japan, and gave her assent to a public inquiry in La Hague.

Today, however, the environment minister is warning, "we will not be able to put off the debate over reprocessing for very long.» Reprocessing is a process which Voynet judges "enormously» expensive and which she thinks is "doomed in the mid- and maybe even in the short-term», given the foreseeable desertion of foreign clients.

In this context, Dominique Voynet thinks COGEMA's demands, for increased production capacity for MOX, are "unreasonable». Addressing the question of the mandatory return of nuclear waste to its country of origin, she is now questioning the legality of some of the contracts signed with COGEMA.

Three experts, Jean-Michel Charpin, Benjamin Dessus and René Pellat, submitted a report this summer to France's Prime Minister on the economics of nuclear power. Some see this as removing doubt about the competitiveness of the sector. What is your opinion?

This report deserves better than the caricatures of it which have sometimes been given. Thanks to the personalities of the three authors, who come from very different backgrounds, this is possibly the first equitable report in the history of nuclear power in France. It provides objective confirmation of several of my own beliefs.

Firstly, contrary to what is often stated, nuclear power is not cost free once the power plants have been built. In fact, operating cost is their greatest item of expenditure. It represents 43 per cent of the costs of a plant over its entire life, whereas investment represents only 25 per cent. This is a point that needs to be taken into account when deciding on the length of service life of plants, investments, etc.

Secondly, the seven scenarios the report envisages for the future lead to prices per kilowatt-hour that are more or less the same regardless of the energy mix chosen. The choices to be made are therefore political rather than economic. The report also confirms the over-production of electricity in France, and that this will continue for a long time. There is therefore no need for investment in new plants before 2020 or 2030. What's more, the main actors in nuclear power in France - EDF and CEA - are aware of this. They are no longer talking much about the European Pressurized Reactor (EPR), the latest of the water-cooled reactors, and are now putting forward all sorts of new technologies.

Finally, of all of the scenarios, those that involve the lowest use of energy are the most interesting from the economic point of view. We could save 14 billion Francs per year and pay less per kilowatt-hour.

In the view of the Secretary of State for Industry, Christian Pierret, and of COGEMA's president, Anne Lauvergeon, the report also confirms the benefits of reprocessing of waste. Do you agree?

On this point, Anne Lauvergeon presents the situation in a way that suites her. She says that, ultimately, reprocessing only increases the price per kilowatt-hour by 1 per cent. But she omits to say that multiplying that increase by the number of kilowatt-hours generated, the bill comes to 150 billion Francs for all of the nuclear power plants, and even then, only on condition that they can operate for 45 years. And we still have to deal with the waste. What the French nuclear sector describes as reprocessing is not actually reprocessing. The different forms of radioactive material are separated, which reduces the most active waste by 15 per cent but causes an accumulation of those wastes that are less active. Ultimately, this complex system will isolate and re-use 150 tonnes or plutonium from the 600 tonnes that will be produced by France's nuclear power stations. But it provides no solution for the other 450 tonnes. And the price is colossal: the report estimates the cost of each tonne of plutonium avoided thanks to reprocessing at a billion Francs. In these conditions, we cannot put off the debate on the future of reprocessing for very long.

Do you mean that La Hague should be closed?

No one is saying that today, and neither am I. Not only because I am concerned about the future of the 19,800 employees of COGEMA, but also because, today, even if we decided to stop all use of nuclear power, there is such a quantity of waste to be conditioned and stored as well as installations to decommission that we need the skills and labor of the people in the sector.

But I am concerned about the employment situation around La Hague, and have said as much to COGEMA's president. There is a risk that the main clients who send their waste to the plant will cease to do so: the Germans certainly after 2005 and perhaps even before, and the same is true for the Belgians and the Swiss. That only leaves the Japanese, who are already questioning the solution and will no doubt have their own reprocessing plant after 2005. From then onwards, the outlook is gloomy. Which is why I think there is an urgent need to change strategy. In fact, COGEMA has already announced that it is looking for a second activity; to accompany its nuclear operations.

The contracts with the German electricity companies all appear to be at a standstill. No German spent fuel has arrived since 1998 and, in the other direction, Germany has not retrieved any of the waste building up at La Hague. What is the way out of this situation?

First, we need to look at the contracts involved. It appears that, prior to 1991, COGEMA made agreements that, in certain cases, did not include return of all of the waste. And even after the "Bataille-Act", which addressed that question in 1991, COGEMA signed contracts that remain open to interpretation. It seems that, for some customers, it was not their waste that was to be returned but its "equivalent radioactivity", which could mean giving them more plutonium and keeping most of the waste under surveillance in France. And that is not acceptable. The French safety authorities should be able to ascertain whether or not COGEMA's commitments are in accordance with the law.

Second problem: the application of these contracts. French law forbids the presence of foreign waste on French soil for periods longer than those required, technically, for reprocessing. In reality, there are thousands of tonnes waiting to be returned to the country of origin. The last shipment to Germany, which gave rise to large-scale demonstrations, was in 1997. Shipments of irradiated German fuel to La Hague were suspended in 1998, after a certain laxism in some of the procedures was revealed. Today, the German electricity companies are pressuring us to accept new shipments of spent fuel for reprocessing. At the same time, Germany has not been able to ensure return of the fuel already reprocessed. The Germans told us they would start to take back their waste in 1999, then in 2000, and we still see nothing moving. We can no longer go on accepting promises. France will not accept any more shipments of waste until Germany begins to take back that already processed. The Cotentin region is not to become Europe's, or even the world's, nuclear dustbin.

The Green Party and Greenpeace recently denounced Japan's intention to sign a new reprocessing contract with COGEMA. What can you tell us about that?

In spite of the Tokaimura accident, the Japanese appear to be affirming their choice of nuclear energy. On the other hand, they are questioning the economic effectiveness of reprocessing of waste and of the real benefit of operating the plant they are currently building at Rokkasho Mura, based on the La Hague plant. If this plant does start up, they are envisaging, in the interim, having COGEMA reprocess an additional 600 tonnes of fuel. That would represent a violation of the 1997 Greens -Socialist Party alliance agreement which stipulated that no new reprocessing contracts would be signed, and I do not intend to give my approval.

COGEMA is also under the spotlight because of its nuclear fuel plant at Cadarache, in the Bouches-du-Rhône region of France, which appears to be vulnerable to earthquakes. Will that facility close?

The Safety Authority has asked COGEMA to prepare closure of the facility before 2002-2003. Obviously, the temptation for COGEMA is to say "if we close Cadarache, allow us to expand our second plutonium fuel plant at Marcoule». But COGEMA's demands are unreasonable. The company wants new capacities that would correspond not only to those of Cadarache but also to those of Dessel in Belgium. And above all, COGEMA is perfectly aware that Cadarache only operates with reprocessing of German fuels and that those contracts do not go beyond 2005. I can't see myself accepting the expansion of Marcoule whereas, in my view, reprocessing is certainly doomed in the mid-term, and possibly even in the short term.

By adopting this anti-nuclear stance, aren't you just prolonging an old ideological battle? In the present context, ecologists could defend nuclear power as the source of energy making the least contribution to the enhanced greenhouse effect?

No. my approach to the problem isn't ideological. I analyze the benefits and drawbacks of each source coldly. During the three years and five months I have been part of this government, I haven't seen much that was likely to make me change the opinions I have held for 20 years. In fact, I am reinforced in my position by reports like that from the Charpin-Dessus-Pellat "trio". It's not a question of choosing between cholera and the plague, between nuclear waste and the greenhouse effect. As the report shows, resuming efforts on energy saving will reduce nuclear waste and polluting emissions. What's more, it is in the transport sector, especially freight transport, that there has been a veritable "explosion" in greenhouse gas emissions.

That's a problem that nuclear energy can't solve. And finally, there are 2 billion people on this planet who don't have electricity, even for lighting or to make their water pump work. Who are we going to convince that nuclear energy, with its huge investment and operating costs, is a viable solution for those 2 billion people?

Interview by Anne Bauer and Denis Cosnard

Back to contents