France - Plutonium Investigationn°19

"The storage in France of imported radioactive wastes is forbidden..." So what?

   If the distribution of fuels reprocessed in the past tilts in favor of foreign customers, the same is true of the quantity of wastes from reprocessing, and stored or disposed of on the national territory. Indeed, the question of the return of foreign wastes remains current, since the status quo is continuing. The balance sheet may be quickly drawn up:

- five shipments of vitrified wastes to Japan -one in 1995, 1997, 1998, and two in 1999- or 272 canisters of vitrified wastes in 5 TN 28 VT type containers and 7 TN 20 VT type containers (manufactured by Transnucléaire, a subsidiary of COGEMA, containing 28 and 20 canisters of vitrified wastes respectively), corresponding to the reprocessing of around 360 tons of spent fuel (or one eighth of what has been processed);

- two shipments of vitrified wastes to Germany (1), one TN 28 VT in 1996, and two Castor 220/28 (a German-designed transport container analogous to the French TN 28 VT) in 1997, corresponding to the reprocessing of around 110 tons of spent fuels (or less than 3% of what was processed);

- two shipments of vitrified wastes to the Belgoprocess site in Dessel, Belgium (2), on 5 April and 17 November 2000, or two TN 28 VT corresponding to the reprocessing of 72 tons of spent fuel or 12% of what was reprocessed (see also the box on that issue: "Conflict over the return of vitrified waste to Belgium").

   Compared to the 8,451 tons of foreign fuels reprocessed up to Dec. 31, 1999, the returns of wastes are late and infrequent. Not only does COGEMA not respect article 3 of the law of 30 December 1991, which stipulates that "the storage of imported radioactive wastes (...) is forbidden beyond technical delays necessitated by reprocessing", but it has also chosen the option of the "curie-swap", which consists of managing the return of foreign waste in terms of activity and not of volume, which is also against the law, insofar as wastes that are clearly identifiable as physically imported would remain on French soil. Therefore, COGEMA may be considered to have been in an illegal situation for years, since the first foreign contracts were signed at the beginning of the 70s, and only a small fraction of highly active waste has been returned, not to mention wastes of medium or low activity that compose the largest portion of the volume and of which not a single gram has been returned.

   There is still no solution to the situation of the shipments to Germany, since the scandal of the contaminated shipments, revealed by WISE-Paris in April, 1998. Although the German government, in January 2000, gave a green light on principal to the resumption of certain shipments within six months, it was clear that in fact no shipment could occur before the end of Expo 2000, the world fair that took place between June and October 2000 in the city of Hanover. Given the security needs for the two events–the latest shipment of waste to the site of Gorleben in Lower Saxony necessitated the deployment of around 30,000 police personnel in all of Germany–it is obvious that the earliest possible date was November 2000. In fact, another problem has been added, which is the reconstruction of a rail bridge over the Jeetzel River, indispensable for the passage of casks weighing over 100 tons each. An alternative route by highway has been rejected for reasons of security. It goes through forests considered to be the favorite action terrain for opponents. An early return of German waste is not foreseeable before spring 2001.

   An analysis carried out in October 2000 by the GNS company, which manages reprocessing contracts for German nuclear operators, reveals the current schedule for the return of wastes:

- 124 casks with highly radioactive waste to be sent from La Hague to Gorleben in Germany at the rate of 12 (or 2 shipments of 6 casks each) per year between 2001 and 2010 and 4 in 2011;

- 305 casks containing compacted wastes of medium activity to the intermediate disposal site of Ahaus at the rate of 24 casks per year (raised progressively from 6 to 24 between 2008 and 2012) until 2022.

   The GNS accounting contains nothing about the other types of wastes generated to the present time, that is the cemented and bituminous wastes of medium activity as well as cemented so-called low activity wastes visibly destined for permanent–and illegal–disposal in France. In fact, until 1989, all of the so-called low activity wastes from reprocessing at La Hague were buried in the final repository Centre de Stockage de la Manche (CSM).

   The French government finds itself in a delicate situation: on the one hand, it must enforce the law; on the other, it supports the commercial interests of COGEMA. The legally private company with a majority of public capital is accused of "putting the lives of others in danger", in particular by the storage of foreign waste, in the framework of a complaint made by the Green regional counselor Didier Anger and the local association CRILAN in 1997. Although the first suit was brought in 1994, it was the second appeal to the legal system that led to an examination of COGEMA and a much tougher investigation, including the seizure of documents at COGEMA headquarters in September 1999. The present position of Lionel Jospin’s government is that it is desirable for Germany first to resume accepting shipments of waste from La Hague before resuming shipments of irradiated fuels in the other direction. This position reflects the mounting pressure in the legal case in process. It does not really put the German utilities in trouble in the short term. Their capacities for disposing of irradiated fuel are still sufficient. And supplementary capacities are under construction or in the advanced planning stage on the reactor sites. But the French government position is not transferable to other countries insofar as the near totality of fuel under contract has already been delivered to La Hague, or even is already processed.

(1) It appears that a shipment of conditioned hulls and nozzles, that is so-called intermediate level waste, occurred (date not specified) to Germany and a shipment of cemented technological wastes (date not specified) to Belgium, according to the "Second Commission on the application in the Member States of Directive 92/3/EURATOM of 3 February 1992 on the supervision and control of shipments of radioactive waste between Member States and into and out of the Community", Council of European Union, 11.01.1999
(2) Idem

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