First quarter of 2001

French Commission for Sustainable Development: "MOX option not an equitable one for future generations"

WISE-Paris, 22 March 2001

[Posted 22/03/2001]

The French Commission for Sustainable Development (CFDD), in a notice published on 28 February 2001 and hardly mentioned by the media, says that nuclear reprocessing has no economic justification and that "the MOX option is not an equitable one for future generations". Also, the CFDD (Commission Française du Développement Durable), affiliated to the Prime Minister's Office, states that "energy savings result in considerable gains that no other option - nuclear, gas or renewables - can match".

The opinion expressed by the CFDD is in a public commentary on the so-called Charpin-Dessus-Pellat Report, according to the names of the three main authors of a Prospective Economic Study of the Nuclear Power Option, issued in July 2000. The CFDD stresses the lack of efficiency of the reprocessing option: "A single MOX reprocessing cycle only reduces consumption of natural uranium by around 5 per cent and production of transuranium elements (plutonium and minor actinides) by 12-15 per cent. The amount of dangerous waste is therefore only slightly reduced by this operation."

The CFDD thinks that the very long necessary cooling times before final storage of irradiated MOX fuel – 150 years or three times as long in the case of uranium fuel – lead to consequences unacceptable for future generations. And, the authors don't miss some criticism about the fact that the report had been out for eight months without any reaction from the government.

Please find hereunder the entire text of the CFDD notice (as translated by WISE-Paris).

For more information:

Commission française du développement durable (CFDD)
President: Jacques Testart
20, avenue de Ségur 75 302 PARIS 07 SP
Tel: 01 42 19 17 79
Fax: 01 42 19 17 90

French Commission for Sustainable Development

Notice No. 2001-05 (February 2001)
On the "Charpin - Dessus - Pellat" Report


A prospective economic study on the nuclear power option, made at the request of France's Prime Minister, was made public on 28 July 2000. Taking the present installed nuclear power plants in France and the need to address future developments of the electricity generating system as its starting points, the report reveals that the reprocessing of irradiated nuclear fuels for their recycling is not an efficient route for waste disposal and is not economically viable.

The Government must react to reports it commissions

So far the French Government has not followed up on this report. The Commission Française du Développment Durable (CFDD - French commission for sustainable development) of course welcomes the fact that Government and Parliament are at the origin of many reports, but regrets the fact that there is no obligation on those who commission such reports to organize a debate around them or to indicate the consequences they would take in terms of public policy. The CFDD feels, in fact, that it is crucial to allow a public that is well informed about energy policy to express its expectations as to the world it wishes to leave to its descendants.

A suitable method for preparing reports on controversial issues

The CFDD took a keen interest in the working method adopted by the report's authors, who made no secret of their divergent views on what was obviously a controversial issue. This method could be applied to other controversial questions. The authors initially gathered their data and submitted them to the critical appraisal of each of the others. Once agreement was reached on uncontested physical and economic data, they agreed on the rules for drawing up scenarios, accepting in advance any unexpected results to which these could lead without stipulating solutions, aware from the start that they would not be in full agreement on the conclusions. The result was the production of a large corpus of facts incorporating technical and economic elements on which agreement was reached. This method has the advantage of providing the political authorities with uncontested information that they can freely use as a basis for decisions, informed by experts but without the content being dictated to them. On the other hand, the CFDD regrets that certain elements were not mentioned, especially numerous both positive and negative externalities: risk of major accident; risk of proliferation; waste monitoring costs; possible evaluation of subsidies granted to the nuclear industry; significance for society, life style, employment; etc.

The costs arising from the present option are not yet all history

The report assesses the costs associated with the presently installed power plants (58 reactors) taking account of their service life, quality of use (coefficients of use, availability, etc.) and continuation, reinforcement or abandonment of reprocessing and recycling of irradiated fuels. It appears - contrary to the usual argument - that operating costs of nuclear power plants represent a very high proportion of total cost (43 %), whereas the cost of decommissioning is relatively low (around 5-6%).

The advantages of reprocessing are questionable

Since the shutdown of Superphénix (a reactor that "burned" plutonium) in 1997, the plutonium derived from reprocessing has been used to make MOX (a mixture of uranium and plutonium oxides) used as fuel for certain reactors alongside enriched uranium. The report points to the low yield from this reprocessing-recycling option, as MOX can only be recycled economically once. The second time around, the reprocessing cost becomes prohibitively high. After this, the amounts of "poisons" in the irradiated fuel make any further recycling technically unfeasible. A single MOX reprocessing cycle only reduces consumption of natural uranium by around 5 per cent and production of transuranium elements (plutonium and minor actinides) by 12-15 per cent. The amount of dangerous waste is therefore only slightly reduced by this operation.

Furthermore, the financial advantage from uranium savings does not cover the cost or recycling. Each tonne of transuranium elements avoided by continuing with reprocessing beyond 2010 will cost FRF 0.4 billion. In all, reprocessing would cost France FrF40 billion to avoid producing around 100 tonnes of transuranium elements, out of a total of around 500 tonnes foreseen for 2050 (at the end of the service life of present reactors).

Finally, the report reveals a major difference between management of irradiated uranium (UOX) and that of irradiated MOX. Before putting these wastes into final storage, they have to be temporarily stored - and monitored - in cooling pools. UOX waste has to be stored for 50 years before final storage, whereas MOX has to be temporarily stored for 150 years. Which means that if storage starts from 2020, organization will be necessary until 2070 for UOX and until 2170 for MOX, representing a change of scale in terms of organizational difficulties.

On the basis of these results, the CFDD highlights three elements

1) The prospective economic study for the nuclear power option proves that the claim of the Ministry of Industry and of the Compagnie générale des matières nucléaires (COGEMA) - that pretends that reprocessing reduces the quantity of waste generated sixfold - is incorrect. The Government has therefore had a report in its possession for eight months, which contradicts the official justification for continuing with reprocessing.

2) In the CFDD's view, the MOX option is not an equitable one for future generations, as it will leave them with the delicate technical problem of management of waste for a period three times as long as that for the UOX option (without recycling).

3) The UOX option, easier to manage, would save around FRF 40 billion between now and 2050 with the sole disadvantage of producing a slightly larger amount of transuranium elements. It is the CFDD's view that this significant information should be brought to the notice of the public in order to allow it to express an informed opinion as to the justification for pursuing reprocessing.

Seven scenarios, one conclusion: encourage energy savings

The second part of the report compares seven energy scenarios at a 2050 horizon, to allow for the inertia of the present installed power plants. Based on a common hypothesis for economic growth (2.3 per cent in GDP between 1998 and 2020 and 1.6 per cent between 2020 and 2050), seven scenarios (three with high energy demand, four with low demand) feature different options (nuclear, natural gas, renewables). The nuclear scenarios consider different types of reactors and fuels. The report describes the fuel and waste flows that each scenario would engender and the technical solutions they imply. It also presents calculations of cumulative costs at several discount rates.

A single significant piece of information emerges from this assessment: by encouraging low electricity consumption, effective demand-side management would provide a saving of around 15-20 per cent in consumption, i.e. around FRF 15 billion per year regardless of the price of natural gas. Moreover, the cost of the kWh of electricity in "low electricity demand" scenarios is less than in "high electricity demand" ones. In other words, energy savings result in considerable gains that no other option - nuclear, gas or renewables - can match.

Nuclear energy and the greenhouse effect

Nuclear energy is generally presented as the solution that reduces CO2 emissions, and therefore the greenhouse effect. However, such a simplified presentation overlooks the problem of waste storage. To go beyond this, the authors of the report propose a method, which the CFDD finds interesting. A value can be assigned to the tonne of high-level nuclear waste avoided in the 2000-2050 period in the same way as tonnes of CO2 avoided are given a value under the Kyoto Protocol, via an exchange mechanism: tradable permits. This approach allows a fairer comparison between the fossil-fuel and nuclear options without which nuclear power has a comparative advantage which the problems arising from the nuclear fuel cycle do not justify.

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