France - Plutonium Investigation n°1

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. 5 Politis,
18 September 1997.

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