Second quarter of 2001

The French " reprocessing ideology " splits a little more

Measuring the ever-increasing rift in France between industrial practices and the "total reprocessing" doctrine, a parliamentary report (1) calls on the government to "end the current ambiguity" and proposes that practices be regulated within the framework of a law on the backend of the nuclear chain.

WISE-Paris, 22 May 2001

[Posted 30/05/2001]

While the American Government cites the French example in an attempt to boost the nuclear sector and especially reprocessing, in France a parliamentary report notes the deadlock of this strategy for the management of irradiated fuel.

Published by the Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choices (Office parlementaire d'évaluation des choix scientifiques et technologiques (OPECST)), the report deals with "the possibilities of long-term storage of irradiated nuclear fuel". It is the continuation of several reports drawn up by the Office on the backend of the nuclear chain, (2) which all confirmed the French "total reprocessing" doctrine. The author, the Socialist Christian Bataille, is known as the "father" of the only law voted in France on the orientation of the nuclear industry. This Law of 30 December 1991 concerned Research on the management of radioactive wastes. He continues to openly support the nuclear industry and reprocessing, castigating, even today, the "dogmatism" of the opponents to this option.

While presenting his report to the press, on Thursday 17 May 2001, Christian Bataille however acknowledged that, given the industrial evolutions of the French nuclear sector, "one can no more say that reprocessing is the ideal solution", adding: "the reprocessing ideology was hard hit, that's for sure".

Hence, although justifying the choices of the 1970s, which pushed France on the road to civil reprocessing and breeder reactors —and consequently absolving the preceding generation of industrial and political decision takers —, the report acknowledges that "[their] argument was based on forecasts that were contradicted by facts" (on the development of the nuclear sector and rarefaction of uranium resources). As a consequence, despite "a very large consensus on the maintaining in France of a strong nuclear industry, a growing number of people are questioning the opportunity of the reprocessing of irradiated fuels". At the center of the debate is the loss of economic justification for reprocessing, in relation to the value of the materials contained in spentfuel (uranium and especially plutonium).

According to the theory put forward in the report, this economic reality is a recent discovery for the industrialists and, moreover, politicians. It asserts that "total reprocessing" remained a belief for all of them until 1996 when the operating company of the reactors, EDF, declared before the deputies that "of 1,200 tons of irradiated fuels" unloaded yearly from its reactors, "it has been decided to reprocess only 850 tons". In these conditions, explains Christian Bataille, EDF is reprocessing only part of its UOX (uranium) fuel, and no MOX fuel (uranium mixed with plutonium resulting from a first reprocessing), of which 100 tons approximately are produced every year.

EDF's statement confirmed a situation that had been prevailing for years and which had been known by experts: (3) the reprocessing contract signed between EDF and COGEMA for the 1990-2000 period concerned an amount of the order of 8,000 tons of fuel, which is 4,500 tons less than the produced amounts over the same period —resulting in approximately 10,000 tons of the irradiated fuel "meant for reprocessing" and stored by EDF. Of this total, 7,097 tons were stored at La Hague as of the end of February 2001 (according to COGEMA's figures), of which more than 6,000 tons do not have a contract. Also, EDF has never had its MOX fuel reprocessed by COGEMA, outside a feasibility study concerning 4.9 tons in 1998. Despite this fact, "the preceding reports published by the Office as well as the talks on the passing of the 1991 law were based on the principle that the totality of the irradiated fuel was to be reprocessed and the only problem to solve concerned the disposal of ultimate wastes resulting from reprocessing".

With the "almost official" withdrawal —in 1996 or long before— from "the "total reprocessing" doctrine" it is clear today that part of the fuel "will not be reprocessed immediately", which "inevitably" poses the problem of its "final destination". The rapporteur recommends action "as though the postponed reprocessing had to be the applicable rule to the totality of the stored irradiated fuel". He especially draws from his analysis the certainty that "the long-term storage of part of the irradiated fuel has become inevitable." (4)

Christian Bataille breaks a taboo the industrialists themselves continue to maintain: at a parliamentary hearing organized by the rapporteur on 3 May 2001, EDF and COGEMA jointly affirmed that the all of the irradiated fuel would be reprocessed, explaining that the management of all of the flows was in fact governed by the rhythm of the manufacturing of the MOX fuel —the only available outlet for plutonium resulting from reprocessing. To balance these flows, COGEMA wishes to raise its rhythm: in spite of the objection of the Minister of Land Planning and the Environment, the company has applied for the increase of the production capacity of its factory MELOX, in Marcoule. On the other hand, EDF is not planning any increase: currently allowed to load with MOX fuel only 20 out of the 28 reactors technically suited to this operation, EDF is not seeking to expand its authorizations and says it can balance the flows by progressively improving combustion rates. (5)

Commenting on the hearings, Christian Bataille deplored "the big relapse" of the two state-owned companies after "an effort of transparence they made these last years". Despite their statements, he judges that "the necessity to provide now for facilities for the storage of long-term irradiated fuel, for both UOX fuel and for MOX or specific fuels, is now evident".

Taking into account this fact, the Office's report considers "vital and urgent to end the current ambiguity" and recommends that "the Government say officially what should France's policy be as far as the nuclear fuel cycle backend is concerned for the coming decades". For that, it proposes "the adoption of a law on the nuclear fuel cycle backend" which would permit to "confirm a certain number of principles and establish certain rules", notably concerning four points:

  • the creation of an Interdepartmental Delegation, "charged with the daily enforcing of a global and coherent policy for the nuclear fuel backend, which is not the case at present time";

  • the management of other countries radioactive materials, which supposes "to fix very precise rules concerning the importation and remaining on French territory of foreign fuels meant for reprocessing". When a draft resolution for the creation of a Committee of inquiry concerning imports to La Hague, was recently tabled to the Parliamentary Production and Trade Commission, the latter referred to the Office's works. (6) Christian Bataille holds a clear position: "contracts concluded with foreign companies concern reprocessing and reprocessing only", he affirms, and "COGEMA doesn't have to provide any additional storage services, although some of the countries are obviously prepared to pay to get rid of problems they don't know how or don't want to solve" ;

  • the reinforcement of the role of ANDRA (National agency for the management of radioactive wastes), which "must assert itself as a unique operator for the totality of the nuclear wastes without exception", which is far from the case today;

  • the clarification of the financing of expenses linked to wastes and the cycle backend, "the current organization for the financing of the storage of wastes, the storage of irradiated fuels, and the dismantling of out-of-service facilities simply via funds recorded on EDF's accounts, does no longer constitutes a satisfying solution for the long term".

Appointed Prime Minister in June 1997, Lionel Jospin committed himself to do what he says and to say what he was doing. By highlighting the current schizophrenia of the nuclear fuel industry backend, the Office's report defies him to apply this transparence by tackling openly complex problems, which the official doctrine prefers to leave in the background. Generally speaking, it initiates a debate on the parties pursuing a reprocessing strategy, when their claims appear to be more and more distant from reality.


  1. C. Bataille, Les possibilités d'entreposage à long terme de combustibles nucléaires irradiés, Report published by the Office parlementaire d'évaluation des choix scientifiques et technologiques (OPECST) Assemblée nationale/Sénat, preliminary version, May 2001
  2. Preceding reports of OPECST on this subject:
    C. Bataille, Gestion des déchets nucléaires à haute activité, December 1990
    Résumé/Abstract :
    C. Bataille, L'évolution de la recherche sur la gestion des déchets nucléaires à haute activité - Tome I : Les déchets civils, March 1996
    Résumé/Abstract :
    C. Bataille, L'évolution de la recherche sur la gestion des déchets nucléaires à haute activité - Tome II : Les déchets militaires, December 1997
    Résumé / Abstract :
    C. Bataille, R. Galley, L'aval du cycle nucléaire - Tome I : Étude générale, June 1998
    Résumé / Abstract :
    C. Bataille, R. Galley, L'aval du cycle nucléaire - Tome II - Les coûts de production de l'électricité, February 1999
    Résumé / Abstract :
  3. In May 1989, a report to the Ministers of Industry and Research highlighted the "doctrinal ultra-conservatism" of the French nuclear sector, notably "the inflexibility of the "total and immediate reprocessing" doctrine for irradiated fuels, while it appears clearly that for EDF, a rather extended intermediate storage between the discharging and reprocessing constitutes and an inevitable variant".
    See : H. Guillaume, R. Pellat, Ph. Rouvillois, Rapport sur le bilan et les perspectives du nucléaire civil en France, May 1989
  4. Where the long term storage is perceived as "an option for the long term, but a limited one, for the fuel cycle, leading to subsequent technical solutions or political decisions", according to a definition which the rapporteur borrows from the Commissariat à l'énergie atomique
  5. The combustion rate corresponds to the energy delivered per given quantity of fuel. For electricity production, the loaded and unloaded amounts in and out of the reactors decrease when combustion rates increase
  6. See "No parliamentary inquiry into "problems of application of the law" at La Hague", 7 May2001

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