Plutonium throughputs and plutonium stockpiles
When the French nuclear programme was boosted in 1974, EDF planned
to reprocess LWR spent fuel and to use the extracted plutonium for the
fabrication of fuel for fast-breeder reactors (FBRs). Although, at the
time, only limited experience was available on either spent LWR fuel
reprocessing or FBR operation, COGEMA committed itself to extensive
programmes for both the UP2 and UP3 plants. At the same time a French
led consortium, NERSA, committed itself to build the FBR reactor, Superphénix,
in spite of considerable public opposition to the project.
The FBR programme did not develop as foreseen. As a result it became
clear that reprocessing would lead to the stockpiling of separated plutonium
as the amount of plutonium being produced exceeded FBR requirements.
In 1985, with the pretext of diminishing this unwanted stockpile of
plutonium, EDF, subjected to considerable pressure from the plutonium
lobbies of the CEA and COGEMA, set up a programme to use plutonium to
produce MOX fuel (mixed uranium-plutonium oxides) for its PWRs (Pressurized
Water Reactors). From then on, this programme became an alibi for the
ongoing construction of plutonium plants at La Hague. The argument to
reduce plutonium stockpiles through a MOX fuel strategy ultimately led
to the opposite effect of increasing plutonium production and stockpiling.
At the end of the 1980s, when the stockpile of separated plutonium
had reached about 3 tonnes, EDF came to the conclusion that "in order
to avoid finding itself in a very difficult situation in the year 2000",
it would be necessary to recycle more plutonium [in MOX fuel], or to
reprocess less fuel"*. It was impossible to "recycle" more plutonium
in MOX fuel because of an insufficient MOX fuel production capacity;
the reprocessing throughput was not reduced either. Plutonium stockpiles
continued to increase; the "very difficult situation" foreseen for the
year 2000 is fast becoming a reality.
Officially, French government policy is to obtain throughput equality
between the plutonium produced in reprocessing and the plutonium used
for MOX production. According to the Ministry of Industry, in order
to avoid the accumulation of stocks of separated plutonium, EDF "only
reprocesses spent fuel if use can be made of the plutonium produced"**
In practice, this is not so. Sixteen PWRs are currently licensed to
use MOX fuel, whereas only fourteen are actually using MOX at the moment.
Plutonium stockpiles are therefore still increasing very rapidly (see
plutonium inventory). EDF has requested a license
to use MOX in another four reactors at Chinon. It is clear that time
is running out; the present context does not favour either comprehensive
analysis or a democratic decision making process.
* EDF, " Combustible MOX, Aspects techniques, économiques et stratégiques
24 November 1989.
** Claude Mandil, Director for Energy at the Industry Ministry, 1996.
18 September 1997.
to contents To