First quarter of 2002

New Plutonium Separation Workshop Opened by COGEMA at La Hague

COGEMA’s brand new workshop is ready to reprocess MOX fuel… although it is not authorized to do so. Meanwhile, it doubles La Hague’s theoretical capacity of plutonium separation, though the operational capacity could be limited due to other workshops involved in the process.

WISE-Paris, 27 March 2002

[Posted 27/03/2002]

On 21 December 2001, the French safety authority (DSIN) gave the final green light for the operation of COGEMA’s new plutonium separation workshop, known as R4, at La Hague (1). This is the last stage of a program to replace some of the older La Hague facilities, begun in 1996, and aimed at broadening the technical range of COGEMA’s reprocessing services.

The R4 workshop will separate the plutonium after dissolution of the spent fuel in the UP2-800 plant. It is in fact intended to replace the old MAPu plutonium workshop belonging to the UP2-400 facility. The new facility has a plutonium separation capacity of 80 kg/day, which is more than twice the capacity of MAPu, with 36 kg/day. It by far exceeds the UP2-800 plant’s needs under the current license: the reprocessing of 800 to 850 tons of UOX fuel corresponds to the separation of less than 9 tons of plutonium, or 25 kg/day on average. Moreover, the UP3 plant, which operates on the same basis as UP2-800, is equipped with a plutonium separation workshop, T4, with a capacity of around 40 kg/day that seems sufficient.

The real reason why COGEMA completed the R4 workshop is to be able to reprocess MOX fuel, together with UOX fuel, on an industrial scale. Jean-Pierre Goumondy of the French Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (IPSN) stated “it should be remembered that the future corresponding facility (R4) of the UP2-800 plant, scheduled to begin operating in 2001 and intended to replace the current facilities (MAPu), will have a daily nominal capacity of 80 kg of plutonium. This capacity would enable reprocessing with a blend of 2.6 tonnes of UOX2 fuels and 1.03 tonnes of MOX fuels, with an initial mass plutonium content of 5.3%”. (2)

This has been made possible as a result of major changes between the technologies used in MAPu and T4 and the new R4 workshop, both in the separation and the storage stages.

The separation of plutonium in R4 is based on a centrifuge technology, while MAPu and T4 use pulsed columns. The centrifuge technology is supposed to be safer because of the lower quantities of plutonium introduced, and the shorter transit time of the material in the process, which explains the increased capacity. Also, the centrifugation process does not require the use of a solvent, which hampers the reprocessing of MOX fuel: in the pulsed column process, the lower quality of plutonium separated from MOX fuel would cause excessive degradation of the solvent by radiolysis. For similar reasons, the centrifugation could also allow for easier reprocessing of unirradiated MOX fuel.

Unlike T4 or MAPu which have very limited storage capacity for the plutonium they separate, the storage capacity of R4, using a different geometry, is significant. It is high enough to allow for the storage and blending of the plutonium separated for a few days. In the case of the reprocessing of MOX fuel, which produces a plutonium of much less homogeneous quality than UOX, this storage capacity could be used to obtain a regular output in terms of plutonium quality.

The building of the R4 workshop – an investment said to be over half a billion Euros – reflects COGEMA’s willingness to diversify its reprocessing activities. However, there is no sign that this diversification of COGEMA’s services could meet any substantial demand at national or international level. Although the 2001 agreement between the French national electricity utility, EDF and COGEMA is said to cover both UOX and MOX fuel, it is quite clear that EDF has no intention of having its MOX fuel reprocessed (3). Nonetheless, as of the end of 2001, COGEMA had only one contract booked covering the reprocessing of fuel other than the Light Water Reactor type, with the Australian ANSTO. The contract, covering 3.6 t of fuel is far from sufficient for the new facility to reach a significant load factor, and none of COGEMA’s current clients is willing to reprocess its MOX.

Not only has COGEMA no commercial prospects for the level of capacity available through R4, but by acquiring this capacity, the operator, as a fait accompli, anticipates potential future licenses. The current licenses of both plants do not allow COGEMA to reprocess MOX fuel, and this can only be modified by ministerial decree. COGEMA applied for new authorizations in December 1998, and as this request remains unanswered, renewed its application in September 1999, but no ministerial decree has been published yet. Should new licenses be granted following COGEMA’s request, they would not even directly authorize MOX reprocessing in R4: the operator’s request is clearly that such an operation be submitted to further specific authorization.

When announcing the start-up of its new plutonium workshop, COGEMA did not give details about the prospects for its operation, which would justify the increase of daily capacity (4). When asked by WISE-Paris about the planned situations that would explain why it authorized this increase, the French safety authority (DSIN) answered that it was “the industrial company’s responsibility(5).

DSIN asserts that the closure of the old plutonium workshop, MAPu “is linked to the issue of new La Hague authorization decrees(6). This leaves COGEMA with a plutonium separation capacity in La Hague double than what it was, with the 80 kg/day of capacity of R4 adding to the existing capacities of MAPu (36 kg/day) and T4 (40 kg/day). Even with the old capacity, the annual separation rate of plutonium was already higher than the annual MOX fabrication rate, leading to an annual increase of around 1.5 t of the French unirradiated plutonium stockpile, which reached 44.2 t as of 31 December 2000. Moreover, at the same time, COGEMA stored 38.5 t of foreign separated plutonium and is increasing this stockpile from one year to another.


  1. DSIN, Mise en "actif" de l'atelier, R4DSIN-FAR/SD1/N° 11220/01, 21/12/2001:
    DSIN, L'Autorité de sûreté nucléaire autorise la Mise en service actif de l'atelier R4 de Cogema La Hague, 21/12/2001 :
  2. In Contrôle, n° 138, January 2001,
  3. COGEMA-EDF , EDF et COGEMA signent un accord pour la gestion des combustibles usés d'EDF :
  4. COGEMA, Mise en service de deux nouveaux ateliers à l'usine de COGEMA-La Hague :
  5. Personal email, Ph. Saint Raymond, DSIN, 11/02/2002
  6. Personal email, Ph. Saint Raymond, DSIN, 31/01/2002

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