“Transfer” of MOX production capacity from Cadarache to Marcoule: one scandal after another

The summer of 2003, which saw the ending of “commercial production” by the ATPu facility at Cadarache (France), marked a successful conclusion to the operator's blackmail tactics. On 3 September 2003, Cogema was granted what it demanded: the authorization of a transfer of production capacity from the ATPu to the Melox plant at Marcoule.
But Cogema's strategy of “fait accompli” at the ATPu continues: on 12 August 2003, probably without the French government go-ahead, and without even consulting the safety authorities, the company signed a contract to fabricate fuel assemblies based on American military plutonium at Cadarache. It now remains for the authorities to explain how this wholly exceptional operation can be justified in a facility with inadequate safety. However, the government may put a swift end to the argument: in an Order published on 9 August, it has jut extended the protection of “military secret” status to possibly all of the nuclear industry's activities.

WISE-Paris, 8 September 2003

[Posted 09/09/2003]

In a Decree, published on 3 September, the French government extended the annual capacity of the Melox mixed plutonium and uranium fuel (so-called MOX) plant operated by Cogema at Marcoule, Melox, from 101 tHM (tonnes heavy metal) of MOX fuel for light-water reactors to 145 tHM. (1) This measure, presented by the authorities as “technical”, (2) is, in fact, a determining step in the strategy employed by Cogema for a number of years aiming to impose the maintaining of the plutonium industry in France in spite of a highly unfavorable international context. (3)

In a first “Briefing”, in July 2000, on the subject of ATPu—the MOX fuel plant operated by Cogema at Cadarache—WISE-Paris revealed, the “blackmail” tactics used by the industrial concern against the French nuclear safety authority. (4)

The safety authority has affirmed, since 1995, that the plant, located near one of the most seismically active areas of France, must close, because its ability to withstand seismic disturbance is inadequate. A date “around 2000” was then envisaged. The matter is urgent: the facility, which contains several tonnes of plutonium in the form of a highly dispersible and radiotoxic powder, is not designed to withstand the most severe seismic disturbance considered feasible for the site. But Cogema has insisted on first obtaining authorization to extend the production capacity of its other French plant, Melox at Marcoule, in order to “transfer industrial production” from the ATPu.

In July 2003, after long and involved negotiation, closure of the ATPu was finally announced. It looked as though safety had had the last word. In reality, Cogema had won on all fronts.

First, politically. The government, via its ministers for industry and environment—respectively Nicole Fontaine and Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin—yielded to Cogema's strategy. Not only did it start, on 8 January 2003, a public inquiry procedure for extension of capacity of the Melox plant before any progress had been made on closure of the ATPu but, above all, it presented Cogema's argument as its own: “The purpose of this extension is the transfer to Marcoule of production at the Cadarache plant, soon to be ended on request from the safety and radiological protection authority for reasons relating to the ability to withstand seismic disturbance […] The government, for reasons of safety, wished to limit this operation strictly to moving production capacity from Cadarache to Marcoule without altering the total MOX production capacity in France”. (5) Authorization was finally granted by the government on 3 September 2003, after a somehow meaningless public inquiry procedure.

Second, in the trial of strength with the safety authority. Three years and numerous postponements after the symbolic date it had set, the Direction générale de la sûreté nucléaire et de la radioprotection (DGSNR - department for nuclear safety and radiological protection) has not obtained effective closure of the facility. Instead of the “final and non-negotiable closure of the facility shortly after 2000” it demanded in 1995, (6) the safety authority uses the terminology chosen by Cogema, inventing, with the “ending of commercial production”, a made-to-measure procedure that does not correspond to any legal framework.

From the regulatory point of view, the end of the life of a nuclear installation corresponds to a series of precise steps subject to clearly defined authorizations: final ending of operations (usually including removal of nuclear materials, etc.); final shutdown; and dismantling. The last two steps are subject to governmental decree, after approval, in particular, of a safety file and impact study. (7) No such procedure for the ATPu! The industrial operator, Cogema, simply declared that it had ceased “its commercial production of MOX fuel rods” on 16 July 2003. (8) Without, apparently, submission of any document relating to “final shutdown of operation” to the safety authority. The authority satisfied itself with an inspection on 1 August 2003 for “verification of compliance by the operator with its commitment to cease commercial production on 31 July 2003”. During this inspection, the authority simply asked the operator to “lock out two machines essential for industrial production” (two grinding machines). Removal of lock out is subject to “explicit authorization” on the part of the DGSNR. (9)

Armed with these made-to-measure provisions, Cogema struck a final blow. The operator explained that “the facility is at present engaged in packaging operations for manufacturing rejects in the form of rods and in research and development work” and that “the clean-up phase for the facility will start in 2006, before it is dismantled”. (10) In other words, seismic risk or no, Cogema has other projects to be carried out in the facility before it is actually closed.

In a “Briefing” published at the end of July 2003, (11) WISE-Paris lifted the veil on these projects. Cogema needs the ATPu to propose a solution to the Americans who, in order to advance their program for use of surplus military plutonium, are seeking any means to manufacture the first test assemblies using this plutonium in Europe, while their own MOX plant is being built. So, while manufacture of French or German MOX at the ATPu is to cease, because the facility is too dangerous, Cogema wants to extend operation for a new, and certainly no safer, form of experimentation: fabrication of MOX using American military plutonium.

The American government, via the US Department of Energy (US DOE), declared, at the end of August 2003, that the contract for manufacture in Europe of “lead test assemblies” (LTA) was signed on 12 August 2003. The consortium responsible for implementing the US MOX program—DCS (formed from Duke, Cogema and Stone & Websters)—entrusted execution of the contract to Cogema. (12)

The French plutonium industry firm thus continues its strategy of “fait accompli”. Not only does the contract, regarding which Cogema refused any comment at first, (13) violates the commitment to end commercial production, even if Cogema uses the pretext—itself problematic from the regulatory point of view—of research and development. But above all, this contractual commitment was seemingly entered into without the forms of approval essential for its implementation, i.e. from the government and safety authority.

The government has to give the political go-ahead for an operation involving, amongst other things, the transfer to France and routing across French territory of around 150 kg of American military plutonium—a quantity equivalent to more than 15 bombs! The French government, however, after authorizing a feasibility study of Cogema on request from the American authorities in 2002, has remained silent since.Though Cogema claim, in its 5 September 2003 press release, that “the French nuclear industry has received agreement from government authorities to assist the DOE”, (14) the French government made no announcement, and it is very likely that Cogema was given no signal before the contract was signed. (15)

As for the safety authority, it will have to pronounce the project free of risk, in contradiction with its firm position since 1995 regarding the ATPu. The DGSNR puts forward the argument that the plutonium involved will be far smaller than the source term of other operations planned for the ATPu, even though this does not in any way reduce the risk of dispersion in case of an earthquake. It also means compounding the deliberate risk of bringing new nuclear materials to the site and the delayed but inevitable processing of the nuclear materials in the facility at present. The safety authority nevertheless remains cautious in the absence of accurate information on the project in question: on 28 August 2003, Cogema had still not submitted any request to the DGSNR for fabrication of the LTA. (16)

It will be difficult to justify to public opinion that such an exceptional operation can be carried out without danger in a facility declared “closed” because of its unsatisfactory safety, and to gain acceptance for the high-risk transport associated with the plutonium concerned. However, an Order from the government, on 24 July 2003, may avoid the authorities having to face this controversy. The text, signed by the Haut fonctionnaire de défense (senior defense civil servant), and published in the French Journal Officiel of 9 August, extends the status of military secret to all measures involving nuclear materials. (17) A form of “protection” which is close to censorship and which strengthens doubts about the willingness of the authorities to fulfill their political role in the face of the industrial strategy of France's nuclear giant.


  1. Decree No. 2003-843 of 3 September 2003 authorizing the Compagnie générale des matières nucléaires (Cogema) to increase to 145 tonnes of uranium and plutonium the annual production capacity for nuclear fuel of the basic nuclear installation known as Mélox, in the municipality of Chusclan (Gard Department, France), and modifying the Decree of 21 May 1990 (modified) authorizing the creation of this basic nuclear installation and its extension. Journal Officiel, n° 204, 4 September 2003, p. 15178
  2. “Technical decisions on safety of Cogema, ANDRA and CEA nuclear installations”, communiqué from Minister for Industry, 7 January 2003
  3. Concerning the request for extension of the Melox plant, see WISE-Paris report:
    MARIGNAC Yves (Dir.), Extension of the Melox plant: successful ‘blackmail’ by COGEMA, WISE-Paris. Report for Greenpeace. March 2003 (Executive summmary)
  4. COEYTAUX Xavier, MARIGNAC Yves & al., ATPu (Plutonium Technology Facility) at Cadarache, Briefing WISE-Paris, August 2000
  5. “Request for establishment of a public inquiry relative to Cogema's request to extend its site at Marcoule”, communiqué from Minister for Ecology and Sustainable Development, 23 October 2002
  6. DSIN, “Report on meeting of 27 January 1995”. Letter DSIN/GRE/SD1/n°134/95, 28 March 1995. (DSIN - Department of safety of nuclear installations - became the DGSNR in February 2002)
  7. Concerning these procedures, see detailed note from the nuclear safety authority of 3 February 2003
    - Letter to Operators: http://www.asn.gouv.fr/data/information/procedregle_demant.pdf
    - Note No. SD3-DEM-01: http://www.asn.gouv.fr/data/information/noteregle_demant.pdf
  8. “Cogema's Cadarache plant ends commercial production of MOX fuel rods ”, undated, COGEMA Cadarache News section, http://www.cogema.fr
  9. Letter following inspection from DRIRE Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, to Director of CEA/Cadarache, 12 August 2003, DSNR Marseille/349/2003
  10. Undated “COGEMA Cadarache” page, on http://cogema.fr
  11. SCHNEIDER Mycle, COEYTAUX Xavier & al. (July 2003). U.S. MOX «Lead Test Assembly» Controversy: Fabrication at Cadarache, France, WISE-Paris. Briefing for Greenpeace International, July 2003
  12. Nuclear Fuel, “Cogema wins contract for fabrication of test assemblies for U.S. MOX fuel”, 1 September 2003
  13. Asked by WISE-Paris on 27 August 2003 about the possible signing of a contract for fabrication of LTA and its implementation, Cogema's press department said it had “no information
  14. “Disarmament agreements: the US Department of Energy (DOE) chooses AREVA for the manufacture of demonstration MOX fuel”, AREVA press release, 5 September 2003. See http://www.arevagroup.com
  15. Nuclear Fuel, op. cit.
  16. Idem
  17. Order of 24 July 2003 on protection of national military secret in the area of protection and control of nuclear materials Journal Officiel, No. 183, 9 August 2003, p. 13859
    See also Le Monde, “Le transport des matières nucléaires, critiqué par les écologistes, relève du «secret défense» (transport of nuclear materials, criticized by environmentalists, covered by "military secret" status)”. 2 September 2003