The end of «commercial production» of the MOX plant at Cadarache, ATPu

Too risky for European fuel, but just right for US weapons plutonium?

Cadarache’s ATPu plant has ceased commercial activity, but plans to fabricate test MOX assemblies for the United States. The announcement, of the «official» end to the commercial operation of the ATPu plant at Cadarache on July 31, 2003 marks the end of the operator’s blackmail attempts to make its interests prevail over safety concerns. But the possible use of this plant – without any discussion – for fabrication involving American military plutonium raises new concerns.

Download the briefing (PDF file, 16 p., 326 Ko), at the adress:

WISE-Paris, 30 July 2003

[Posted 30/07/2003]

There is no summer break for the plutonium industry. Confronted with an ineluctable decline, of which the British press gives an almost daily illustration (1), of its classical commercial services – reprocessing and the fabrication of mixed oxide fuel (MOX) for light water reactors –, the industry is looking for every new path it can develop. For instance, India (2) and Russia announced almost simultaneously, in July 2003, that they had carried out new irradiation of MOX fuel in fast breeder reactors.

The announcement by Russia that it completed the first irradiation in one of its BN-600 fast breeders (Beloyarsk-3) of a 10 kilogram sample of MOX fuel made with weapon plutonium (3) is an important step in the framework of the joint agreement between Russia and the United States, concluded in 2000, to dispose of 34  metric tons each of «surplus» plutonium from their nuclear arsenal. It confirms that Russians prefer to use this plutonium in fast breeder reactors – though the most proliferating option – rather than in light water reactors, which they regard as inefficient for this program.

Meanwhile, the United States is trying to accelerate the implementation of its own disposition program. After the decision, in April 2002, to abandon the initial «dual track» strategy – immobilization of a portion of the plutonium in a waste form, and fabrication of the remainder into MOX fuel for light water reactors –, the program has become a «single track» strategy based on the MOX option alone.

To gain time, the United States has developed a «Eurofab» option which involves the fabrication in Europe of the Lead Test Assemblies (LTAs) of MOX fuel necessary for the qualification of the process. This is only possible in two plants, P0 in Dessel, Belgium and ATPu in Cadarache, France. Since July 2002, when the Belgian government indefinitely delayed its decision on the issue, the ATPu plant in Cadarache has been considered the «best» option. The announcement during the first half of 2003 of the «official» end, as of July 31, 2003, of the commercial activity of ATPu does not seem to have influenced the initial strategy.

The announcement marks the end of an eight-year struggle between the French safety authority and the industrial operator of ATPu, COGEMA, attempting by blackmail – revealed in a WISE-Paris Briefing in July 2000 (4) – to make its own interests prevail over safety concerns. The plant is situated close to one of the most active seismic zones in France, and should be shut down because of its poor seismic design, but COGEMA wanted first to secure guarantees that it would be authorized to increase the capacity of its other plant, in Marcoule.

As an end to a long period of bargaining, which eventually saw the present Government adopt COGEMA’s view by paving the way to the increase at Melox in order to «transfer» there ATPu’s capacity, «commercial operation» of the plant stopped 16 July 2003, according to COGEMA. The production of the plant may actually not stop, nor the controversy, if it is used to produce the MOX LTAs for the United States, although its obsolescence makes it not safe enough to produce European fuel.

The operation, which would be unprecedented, is not subject to any discussion. There are however important risks. According to COGEMA, the project «would not raise safety concerns, because there would only be a very small quantity of plutonium there, less than one tenth of what was there when the plant was operating at its maximal capacity» (5). That is to say, the potential threat posed by the installation – the possible dispersion of its plutonium inventory in case of a major earthquake – that leads the safety authority to request the plant closure would remain, although lowered. Moreover, this declaration makes no mention of the characteristics of the specific plutonium involved, which would increase, in particular, criticality problems – enough for the LTAs’ fabrication not to be authorized in the modern Melox plant, submitted to more stringent safety rules.

WISE-Paris provides today, in a new Briefing, a detailed overview of the case. It assesses the nature and background of the Cadarache option. The document also analyzes, from a political, regulatory and technical point of view, the reasons why the LTA project targeted P0 in Dessel and ATPu in Cadarache. It discusses the range of problems raised by the project to produce LTAs at ATPu and highlights the controversy that this proposal has stimulated.

U.S. MOX «Lead Test Assembly» Controversy:
Fabrication at Cadarache, France

If too dangerous for European fuel,
why just right for U.S. weapons plutonium?

Briefing for Greenpeace International, July 2003, PDF file, 16 p., 326 Ko)

Conclusions :

The international plutonium industry is in decline. The traditional foreign clients of the two main providers of reprocessing services in France and the UK are not renewing decade old contracts. The fast breeder reactor technology, that was supposed to make use of the plutonium, has been abandoned by all of the Western nuclear countries. As a consequence, and because separation of plutonium has been ongoing in spite of the failure of the fast breeder reactors, there are vast stocks of separated plutonium. The use of plutonium in the form of mixed oxide uranium-plutonium or MOX fuel has been promoted, mainly by the plutonium industry itself. However, a series of quality-control scandals, especially in the UK and Japan, as well as the high costs compared to the uranium fuel option, have thrown the plutonium strategy into disarray.

On the other hand, the U.S. Government has decided to dispose of 34 MT of weapons grade plutonium in the form of MOX fuel, though the program still faces regulatory, technical and financial hurdles. Due to U.S. inexperience, the European plutonium industry has been called on to help with the development of an entire plutonium fuel system in the U.S.. In order to accelerate the process, impacted by frequent and significant delays, the U.S. Government has decided to ask the French and Belgian Governments for the possibility to get MOX lead test assemblies (LTAs) fabricated in COGEMA’s ATPu facility in Cadarache, France or in the P0 facility in Dessel, Belgium – the so-called Eurofab option.

While the U.S. Department of Energy and COGEMA and Belgonucléaire continue to communicate about the Eurofab option, the public has been left out of this discussion. Given that the public will be placed at risk during transport and fabrication operations, particularly at the seismically-unsafe Cadarache plant, the plans being discussed behind closed doors should urgently be publicly presented and analyzed. Further, the flimsy regulatory framework of the 40 year old Cadarache and Dessel facilities does not guarantee an appropriate licensing procedure.

DOE’s presentation to the French and Belgian Governments that it would undertake preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the LTA program should be honored and plans for the sea shipment of weapons plutonium from the U.S. to Europe should be revealed and publicly discussed.

In hand with this, the DOE should take immediate steps to insure that the public has a role in the overall decision-making process associated with this program, along with fully revealing its overall costs.

That the French Government would permit the U.S. Government to enter into a MOX fabrication contract even after commercial operation has ceased at Cadarache at the end of July 2003 is a highly-charged political issue which could have serious environmental and public health consequences.

Thus, the following question is urgently awaiting an answer: If Cadarache is too unsafe for fabrication of French or German MOX made from reactor-grade plutonium then why is it safe enough for fabrication of weapons-grade MOX for the United States?


  1. It looks as though BNFL had to “subcontract” parts of its MOX fuel contracts with German or Swiss customers because of its difficulties with the SMP operation.
    See “BNFL subcontracted an order for MOX fuel, given delays at SMP”, Nuclear Fuel, Number 15, 21 July2003
  2. See “Irradiation testing of MOX begins at Kalpakkam”, NewIndPress, 22 July 2003
  3. See “Russian Fast Reactor Uses First Batch of MOX”, NucNet, 21 juillet 2003
  4. ATPu (Plutonium Technology Facility) at Cadarache. Briefing WISE-Paris, August 2000 (version 4)
    Briefing :
    Annexes :
  5. “Risque sismique : l'usine Cogema de Cadarache cesse de produire”, AFP, 28 juillet 2003
    Quotation translated by WISE-Paris