France - Plutonium Investigation n°1

The French Fast-Breeder Programme

At the beginning of the 1970s, the nuclear industry envisaged an intensive development of fast-breeder reactors, which were to become standard reactors by the turn of the century. In parallel with its plutonium industry, France built two full scale FBRs, Phénix at Marcoule, and Superphénix at Creys-Malville - which is the largest FBR in the world.


Phénix is a 250 MWe demonstration FBR operated by EDF and the CEA at Marcoule. Phénix went critical on 31 August 1973. At the end of 1995, it had only generated 22 TWh during 21 years of operation, which corresponds to a 27% capacity factor. Phénix has been undergoing major maintenance work since 7 April 1995. This long outage will enable a thorough analysis of the state of the reactor. The operator is also formulating a request for a further 10 year operating period . Both welding defects and stress corrosion cracking have already been detected in the secondary cooling system. It is planned to replace parts of the secondary cooling system. Furthermore, the operator was to install a complementary emergency shut-down system. This decision follows - although there is no official connection - four emergency shutdowns of the reactor after abnormal abrupt spontaneous drops in core reactivity that took place in August and September 1989 and in September 1990. The reasons for these reactivity variations, which can theoretically lead to a Chernobyl type accident, are still not completely understood. A decision about whether Phénix would continue to operate or not is expected before the end of 1997. Safety authorities and the Ministry of Environment are not convinced about the wisdom of allowing the plant to re-operate and it could very well be definitively shut down.


Superphénix has a nominal 1,240 MWe power generating capacity. It was built and operated by NERSA, a consortium with the participation of EDF (France: 51%), ENEL (Italy: 33%) and SBK (German-Dutch-Belgian consortium: 16%). The British left the consortium at the beginning of 1997; the Italians announced at the end of October 1997 their intention to leave NERSA.

Superphénix first went critical on 7 September 1985. As of end of 1996, it had generated 8.2 TWh during eleven years operation, which corresponds to a capacity factor of less than 7% . This poor result, which is the worst capacity factor encountered with any power reactor, is the result of repeated shutdowns and time consuming repair and maintenance programmes. The longest outage lasted four years and required a completely renewed licensing procedure with a public enquiry. Superphénix was definitively shut down on 24 December 1996.

The last license for the operation of Superphénix was issued 11 July 1994. This license stipulates that the reactor can be used for research. This modification to the original objectives of the reactor was not accepted by the foreign partners of NERSA who requested and obtained compensation. At the end February 1997, the State Council (Conseil d'Etat) cancelled the 1994 license following a complaint filed for incompatibility between the status of the reactor and the objectives of the reactor's operating programme. Also, the final shut down of Superphénix was programmed in an electoral agreement between the Green and the Socialist parties prior to the June 1997 legislative elections. In his general policy declaration on 19 June 1997, the new Prime Minister Lionel Jospin confirmed this decision: "If the nuclear industry is an important asset for our country, it must not exempt itself from democratic rules, nor pursue projects of excessive cost and uncertain success: this is why the fast-breeder reactor, 'Superphénix', is to be abandoned." It is the end of a technological adventure, the cost of which has been estimated by the National Audit "Cour des Comptes" to be about FF 60 billion (about US$ 10 billion).

Map of Plutonium in France (Pdf format, 59 Ko)       

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