Nuclear waste requires investments spread out over several decades for its removal and millennia, if not hundreds of millennia, for its treatment. What is the responsibility of societies who have been using this energy for such a long time?
Nuclear energy generates radioactive waste, regardless whether it is used in military, medical, industrial, or research settings. This consists of residual radioactive materials as well as radiated or contaminated tools, equipment and infrastructure used in this process. The majority of waste is generated during the preparation, fabrication, use in the reactor, and post-radiation management of the fuel in nuclear reactors.
Nuclear waste is classified according to its use and the length of time for which it will remain radioactive. The most highly radioactive waste, which will take the longest to become inert, is generated mostly by the nuclear power industry. Its management is the most problematic.
Unlike the overwhelming majority of countries that use nuclear energy, France decided to reprocess its spent fuel. Its reprocessing at the plant in la Hague in Normandy consists of separating this spent fuel initially made up of uranium oxide into three parts: 1% plutonium, which forms during the radiation process in the reactor, 95% uranium, which is impoverished by passing through the reactor, and 4% of “final waste.” The latter consists of what is known as “vitrified” waste, which means that the most radioactive products are encased in a glass structure. Reprocessing also generates less radioactive intermediate waste, which, however, still needs to be isolated for a very long period of time.
Nuclear waste reprocessing facility in Flamanville (France), 2016, Foundation for Political Ecology.
The principle by which the plutonium and uranium obtained through reprocessing the waste have a value, i.e. can in theory be reused in a new form in certain reactors, leads to their being classified as other than waste. They are nevertheless far from fully reusable under the current system. Thus, while their full reutilization cannot be feasibly be envisioned, they do not form a technical or economic part of a very long-term waste management strategy either.
Reprocessing was not initially conducted for this reason, and instead as part of a military program. The nuclear industry gradually developed a program to utilize the plutonium to feed a new generation of reactors designed specifically to run on this element (known as breeder reactors). After the development of this network was halted, the nuclear industry decided to continue reprocessing anyway and to introduce the plutonium in current reactors, which hadn’t been designed for this purpose. The fuel thus created is called MOX, a mix of plutonium oxide and uranium oxide. Spent MOX fuel, which is not reprocessed, adds a layer of complexity to the inventory of materials and waste to be managed. It is hotter and more radioactive that traditional, uranium-based fuel and as such, it is more problematic to stock and store.
In the absence of being able to reutilize the plutonium effectively, this strategy has led to the accumulation of a particularly dangerous, unusable material. Furthermore, the uranium collected during reprocessing, in part also reused in French reactors, is accumulating in significant amounts.
Although reprocessing is presented as a way to simplify the problem of long-term waste, in reality it is merely shoving the solution to a veritable conundrum off onto future generations.
The inherent complexity of “reprocessing as recycling” and the storage facilities involved, from the report “The ‘Cycle’ of French Nuclear Fuel: A Critical Analysis of the Current State of Affairs,” Yves MARIGNAC, July 15, 2010. Copyright Yves Marignac, Wise Paris.
Caché ! These barrels do not exist! The deep underground storage magic
l’enfouissement géologique profond
The burial of radioactive waste in the ocean in the 1960s, drawn from the national inventory of radioactive materials and waste, Submerged waste, Volume 1, ANDRA, 2012. All rights reserved.
Whether it’s spent fuel or waste from reprocessing, managing this highly radioactive nuclear heritage safely remains a particularly difficult problem.
The complexity of managing this waste resides mainly in the two principal characteristics of radioactive matter: its harmfulness and the longevity of the elements it emits. Some of them take tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years to become fully inert.
No acceptable solution to this problem was ever established at the outset. Various options have been proposed for disposing of this waste and some have even been tried. None of them has proven to be acceptable. For example, it was suggested that we send it into space, but for obvious safety reasons, this solution was quickly disqualified. More seriously, it was decided at one point to sink barrels of radioactive waste into a trench on the ocean floor. 14,000 tones of radioactive waste generated in France were buried in this way in the 1960s, in large part off the coast of Galicia in Spain. This international practice was definitively banned only in 1983.
The solution that the nuclear industry has now settled on is storage in deep, underground structures, which was formerly referred to as burial. Compared to the previous options, this solution now seems to be the most technically reasonable for managing this “final waste”; however, this does not make it acceptable.
Our responsibility towards our contemporaries and to a near and a distant future for managing nuclear waste safely has a significant economic cost. ANDRA, the National Agency for Radioactive Waste Management, is prospecting at Bure (Meuse) with the aim of burying 80,000 m3 of highly radioactive, long-lasting waste produced by France’s fleet of nuclear reactors at a depth of 800 meters.
This burial project was initially envisaged to cost 13 billion euros, but it has since been reassessed at more than 36 billion. According to the State Audit Court, the nature of such costs is hard to define, given how long the projects are expected to last. As such, this recent reevaluation could once again be increased – even repeatedly. This is all the more true when we consider that this project currently does not factor in unusable fuel or plutonium, resting as it does on the absurd assumption that everything can be reprocessed and reused.
The deep storage of “final waste” seeks to avoid the risk of its long-term storage at the surface, where it is exposed to potential acts of malice, natural disasters, or simply technical failures that would have broad health and environmental consequences.
The French deep storage project nevertheless remains highly controversial. It is in effect very difficult to guarantee that technical failures will not occur over such a long period of time as the one that needs to be considered in this instance. It does not guarantee the reversibility of this management. In other words, once the storage is sealed, it is impossible to recover the waste in question if a better solution were to emerge. Similarly, if an accident were to occur at such depths, future generations would lack the means to intervene and limit the damage.
Beyond the technical issues, this deep storage project has given rise to an ethical problem involving the nuclear industry and our society as a whole. The very long-term concerns and the investments that our generation is pushing off on the millions who will follow us on this earth raise profound questions about the feasibility of the nuclear industry in general.
Such deep storage projects (there are others, the most advanced of which is in Finland, on the Olkilouto peninsula) posit a metaphysical narrative of considerable scope, given that they foresee communicating several hundred thousand years into the future. What languages, which codes will exist on such a vast time scale? When we look at the past, hieroglyphs are only 3,000 years old, and the cave drawings at Lascaux were made between 17,000 and 18,000 years ago. How will we communicate with beings whose mode and norms of communication are perhaps not even at an embryonic stage at this point? The concept of burial in Finland suggests a “passive” management of the waste; by consigning it to the depths and thereby removing it from sight, we are getting future generations to forget that it’s there.
“Into eternity”, Documentary, 2009, Michael Madsen:
How can we justify polluting the future for such a long period of time that we cannot even conceive of a means to communicate its dangerousness to our descendants?
The amounts of fuel and waste at stake, the technical uncertainties, the financial burden, and the unresolved ethical questions today constitute the main reasons for questioning our decision to produce electricity from nuclear energy. By continuing this production without resolving these issues, nuclear power is placing a heavy responsibility not only on the people of today, but also on countless future generations.
The heritage of nuclear power is not limited to the materials and waste it generates. It also concerns facilities and sites, and their eventual dismantling. In this domain as well, the industry took a leap without any real understanding of the technical and economic conditions, or of the acceptability of the necessary operations. The industrial and financial implications of dismantling France’s 19 nuclear power plants call the very viability of the country’s nuclear model into question.
As with nuclear waste, the responsibility for managing the plants’ posterity falls to the operators, who must set aside considerable provisions in their accounts that will be used when the time comes to carry out this very long-term process. In fact, once the reactor is stopped and the fuel removed, it is estimated that the dismantling will take approximately 30 years. The emphasis is on “estimated,” because no French reactor has been fully dismantled yet. The “first generation” reactors that form part of the graphite–gas network, located primarily in Marcoule, started up thirty years ago and their full removal is not foreseen before 2040. The a priori simplest dismantling of the prototype of the pressurized water reactor in Chooz (currently installed in the current fleet of plants) began in 2006 and is expected to be completed by 2022.
The difficulty in estimating the sums needed for these dismantling projects is due primarily to our lack of experience with these kinds of works. Despite the fact that the provisions set aside for the end of the nuclear cycle in EDF’s books are increasing – they went up from 461 to 520 million euros per year between 2010 and 2013, a 12.8% increase over 3 years – the estimates on which these provisions are based appear to be too low.
In 2014, the State Audit Court estimated the total gross costs of dismantling and waste management in France (for all operators) at approximately 87 billion euros, but the United Kingdom, whose fleet of 16 reactors is much smaller than France’s, has estimated these costs at a total of 150 billion euros for its own fleet of reactors and management of their waste, which is not at the scale of France’s. According to the State Audit Court, operators have to date only collected half of the amounts necessary for the end of the plants’ industrial life cycle.
For this reason, certain experts such as Corinne Lepage have estimated the required dismantling budget in France at more than 200 billion euros.
The lack of consideration of the issues tied to the plants’ dismantling and the management of their nuclear waste benefited from the nuclear power industry’s ability to supply energy at very low cost, which has always formed the core of its economic rationale and the politics of its acceptability.
Although operators are obligated by law to recognize sufficient assets in their books to cover future dismantling charges, these provisions remain the property of the operators, who invest them as they see fit. In 2013, basing themselves on the reports by the State Audit Court and the CNEF (the National Commission for Evaluating and Financing the cost of dismantling nuclear facilities and managing spent fuel and radioactive waste), WWF France asserted that these investments are opaque, volatile, and poorly diversified. Although the law requires these assets to have a certain degree of security and liquidity corresponding to their purpose, a significant share of these provisions currently consists of securities in companies tied to the nuclear electric industry (RTE, AREVA, CEA, EDF, etc.) or to receivables for these companies.
The State Audit Court specified that, for this asset class, “the State appears directly or indirectly as the financer of last resort. It is in fact the shareholder of three operators and the receivables from one to the other are in effect receivables from the State towards itself. Similarly, when the State commits to buy Areva securities to finance CEA’s expenses, practically speaking, it can only buy these securities for itself… By making the State the ultimate financer of long-term nuclear costs, this development will give rise over time to significant future expenses for the government…”.
Without government intervention, the pursuit of the current strategy will place the risk of long-term expenses on the State and, as a final resort, on taxpayers. This unsettling situation was one of the main concerns for a 2014 parliamentary commission that focused on the past, present, and future costs of the nuclear power industry. The commission’s conclusions emphasized the importance of “securing the financing of the nuclear power industry’s future expenses (dismantling and waste) so that these will not be at the expense of future generations…”.
The Nuclear Illustrative Programme (known as PINC) published in 2016 analyzed the nuclear power industry to evaluate its prospects and needs in terms of investments and the costs of its operations in the various EU member states. The European Commission estimates that the provisions established in Europe for meeting long-term expenses should cover more than 50% of the projected costs for managing the waste and the dismantling, while Europe’s reactors have on average completed almost 65% of their life cycle. This presupposes a massive extension of their operation beyond the lifespan that was initially foreseen for these reactors. This gap between provisions for long-term charges and operation, which is already troubling at a European level, is all the more so in France, where provisions only cover 34% of future needs, even though the country’s network of reactors has exceeded 56% of its productive life.
Despite appearances, these sums are characterized by a strong dose of optimism. The situation becomes even more problematic when one brings a greater sense of realism to the numbers. According to an analysis performed by the Paris-based firm WISE Paris, the Commission’s estimates are characterized by a mix of a chronic underestimation of the costs and difficulties and an equally systematic overestimation of the potential operational capacity of Europe’s nuclear reactors.
The estimated 68 billion euros furnished by French stakeholders and withheld by the European Commission for long-term charges in France are lower than the amount identified by the State Audit Court, which it nevertheless considers as probably insufficient. Moreover, the French network of nuclear reactors, currently almost 30 years old, has lived three quarters of the 40 years of operations envisaged at its outset; it is now awaiting possible extensions that are never granted at this late stage.
In the end, if one is prudent about the prospects of extending the life of the plants and realistic when estimating the projected costs in the most advanced countries, the abyss that appears in the provisions is alarming. While the provisions set aside until now in Europe correspond to an average amount of 4.7 €/MWh of nuclear electricity produced until now, one should set aside an average between 20 and 40 €/MWh in provisions to cover the long-term costs.
The provisions, which are formed by making a withholding on production costs, thus have a direct impact on consumer prices. Therefore, these provisions cannot be dissociated from the plants’ forecasted life expectancy. According to the scenarios for extending the plant’s operation and thus their duration, the amount of provisions reserved for the end of their life cycle would be considerably influenced. Operators are trying to extend the life of their facilities as a way of amortizing their initial investments, but not just that. The shorter a plant’s lifespan, the greater the impact of the provisions on production costs and, therefore, the higher the price of nuclear electricity.
The myth of cheap electric energy rested on an illusory construct that did not reflect the true costs of producing nuclear energy.
Since the beginning of the nuclear program, the questions surrounding the management of the waste and the dismantling of the facilities have remained unanswered. For now, they have merely been deferred for a future and for an imaginary technical progress to resolve. Our current denial of the urgent need for a new strategy for the French nuclear industry is proof of the irresponsibility of operators and yet another sign that this system, already reckless, continues to stumble headlong into a risky future.