Cadarache Special - Plutonium Investigation n°20

The industrial implications

In the strategy put in place by COGEMA, the distribution of production between Marcoule and Cadarache is clear: MELOX produces MOX for pressurized water reactors (PWR) on its first line (intended for EDF), and MOX for boiling water reactors for Japanese clients and potentially for German clients on its second line. The ATPu produces MOX for PWRs for German clients.

In this way, the Cadarache site, which has ISO 9002 and ISO 14001 certification, also obtained the KTA (Kerntechnischer Ausschuss) label specific to the quality standards of the German nuclear industry. The ATPu has been managed for several years by the former director (of German nationality) of the MOX plant at Hanau, in Germany, which has been out of production since 1991.

According to the German operator Preussen-Elektra (on 1 January 2000), 262.6 tons of MOX fuel remain under contract for delivery to German clients.24 The plants available in Europe for this are (theoretically): BNFL's MDF plant at Sellafield (UK); the Belgonucléaire plant at Dessel (Belgium); and the COGEMA plants at Marcoule (MELOX) and Cadarache (ATPu).

Until now, Cadarache and Dessel represented two-thirds of the German fuel imports. To fulfill its contracts with the German electricity companies, COGEMA at Cadarache would have to run its fabrication facility until at least 2006 (with output of 40 tons per year).

As imports of MOX from BNFL are now suspended (after the problems described above), only the Dessel and Marcoule plants can, theoretically, propose an alternative in the event of closure of the ATPu. In practice, moving the activity to the Belgian company does not appear possible, given the specifications of the Dessel plant and its full order books.

"Blackmail" by COGEMA.

COGEMA's current intention is to continue production at Cadarache. Given the risk of an inadequate ability to withstand earthquakes, the DSIN has repeatedly requested 25, since January 1995, that — while awaiting the requested closure of the facility — "compensatory measures be introduced immediately, for example, on the source term." This request has not prevented production from surpassing the 1995 level (31.2 tHM) since 1998, even going beyond the announced production capacity for the MOX-PWR production line (35 tHM per year).

In parallel, the DSIN recorded six occasions between 1991 and 1997 on which the 1 per cent limit on americium in the plutonium stored at the ATPu was exceeded (of which three were in the years 1996 and 1997 alone). Highly radiotoxic, americium results from the decay of plutonium, and constitutes a problem for radiological protection and safety. However, the operator states in a letter that "large-scale investment, decided in 1991, and introduced progressively between 1993 and 1996 […] has allowed a reduction in the quantities of material present within the equipment at any given moment." 26 COGEMA clearly wishes to gain maximum profit from the ATPu: "from the industrial point of view, it would be highly desirable to obtain a return on the major investments […] made since 1991."

Would it be possible for COGEMA to transfer the production of MOX for Germany to MELOX? The company's response is negative, as affirmed in the letter already mentioned: "for technical, industrial and administrative reasons, no other installations would be able to fulfill this mission at present." The "technical" reasons do not, in reality, appear of prime importance: production of MOX for German PWRs is possible at MELOX, even though it would require some technical adjustments. It is the administrative and commercial constraints that are the determining factor. With a load factor of 100 per cent and authorized annual production of 101.3 tHM, the MELOX plant cannot take on additional MOX production without reducing the quantities manufactured for EDF. Now, under the present contracts for reprocessing between EDF and COGEMA, all of the MELOX output would not be sufficient to ensure the equality of flows established as a principle by the national electricity company.27 And, it is now known that MELOX's work load includes the production of MOX for Japanese BWRs and possibly German reactors.

This saturation was predictable, and was foreseen by COGEMA and by the safety authority. As of January 1995, the DSIN associated its request for closure of the installation with a proposal for "two intermediary stages, one around 1995 relative to the decision as to whether or not to include authorization for a MOX plant in the new decrees authorizing La Hague, the other, around 1997, relative to the actual decision to build the plant." 28 For COGEMA, the solution is not at La Hague but at Marcoule: its project for MELOX is to reach a production level of 250 tons of oxide per year, far greater than the 115 tons authorized when the first production line was commissioned and maintained at the commissioning of the second one.

This is why the operator of the ATPu does not envisage closure of the installation in the present administrative situation: in its response of 1998 to the DSIN, it states when referring to production at the ATPu, that: "in the future, only MELOX, with technical and administrative capacity extended to 250 tons per year of MOX production, will be able to provide such manufacture."

And it concludes that "in these conditions, shutting down the ATPu cannot be envisaged, from the industrial point of view, before the MELOX plant has been developed as described above." For the safety authority, this constitutes "blackmail", as attested by a comment in the margin of the letter in question 29.

No way out for German plutonium

Closure of the ATPu at the end of 2002 would have serious consequences not only for COGEMA but would also trigger a complete overhaul of the German strategy for plutonium management. The 40 tons of MOX produced annually at Cadarache for German electricity companies absorb more than 2 tons of plutonium. The remaining 262.2 tons under contract at the start of 2000 represent more than 15 tons of plutonium, or the equivalent plutonium content of the 1,652 tons of irradiated fuel still under contract (including the 1,127 tons termed "post-2000") for reprocessing at La Hague. In case of closure of Cadarache, there would be no alternative outlet route for the German plutonium separated in the La Hague plants by 2005, and the question can be posed as to the decisions Germany might take concerning its reprocessing contracts. On this subject, Mr Wolfram König, the head of Bundesamt für Strahlenschutz (BfS) — a state agency and sort of mixture of the DSIN, ANDRA and OPRI — has declared that: 30

"Reprocessing is limited under the consensus agreement until 2005.31 The companies have the possibility of fulfilling former contracts. In the future, we will see if, finally, the companies will use this. There are already at present — amongst other things — economic arguments in favor of not fulfilling them. The key model envisaged at present as the solution by the Federal Government — avoiding transport by direct storage [of irradiated fuel] and storage of waste on nuclear power station sites — will certainly be a success."


24 PreussenElektra table presented to the "Plutonium-Workshop", 13-14 January 2000, in Jülich, Germany.

25 This request, reported in the meeting report of 27 January 1995, was, for example, repeated in the letter of 22 October 1997.

26 CEA-COGEMA letter of 11 December 1997: DIR/CSN 97/982 - BR/SX 97/18.

27 EDF has around 850 tons of plutonium reprocessed each year at the La Hague plant, producing between 8 and 8.5 tons of plutonium. With, at present, an average plutonium content for MOX of around 6 per cent, it would be necessary to produce around 135 to 150 tons of MOX to use up the plutonium separated each year. At the maximum level of 7.08 per cent of plutonium in the MOX, authorized since the end of 1998, MELOX nominal capacity of 101.3 tons is not sufficient to use up more than 7.2 tons of plutonium in a year. The present situation therefore, inevitably, leads to an increasing stock of plutonium "on the shelf".

28 DSIN letter of 28 March 1995: DSIN/GRE/SD1/N°134/95.29 CEA-COGEMA letter of 11 December 1997: DIR/CSN 97/982 - BR/SX 97/18.

30 Phoenix-TV, 27 March 2001

31 In fact, the agreement between the German Government and the major nuclear operators stipulates that transport to reprocessing plants would no longer be allowed after July 2005. The fuel stored in the reprocessing plants can be processed later.

Previous page               To be continued (Plut'Info: Figures, Words of the month, Worth reading)
Back to contents