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Radioactive Waste Management in France

  • Published on 02 June 2022
  • Nuclear
  • Climate
  • Nuclear electricity
  • Nuclear waste
  • Storage

Radioactive Waste Management in France

OVERVIEW of Jean FLUCHÈRE's document

Any human activity generates waste, whether tied to household, daily, economic, industrial, commercial, etc. activities.

For nuclear power, the issue is not whether or not to produce waste, the real issue is to:

  • Produce as little waste as possible, thanks in particular to circular economy.
  • Properly manage the waste produced (ultimate materials) so that they do not impact our environment.

Note that compared to all other industrial activities, the volume of waste produced by the nuclear power industry is very small.

From the very beginning, the French nuclear power industry has taken great care in its management of the radioactive waste produced. In particular, it has decided to exercise its responsibilities as nuclear power operator by reprocessing the spent fuel and recovering both the uranium and the plutonium as nuclear fuels (nuclear materials). This reduces the high-level long-lived waste (HLW-LL) to the fission products and minor actinides, plus the metallic structure holding the fissile product rods of the fuel assemblies, the “skeleton”. And when this becomes possible, it will close the fuel cycle almost completely thanks to the advent of fast breeder reactors. Indeed, these will be able to use as their fuel the depleted uranium (350,000 metric tons in France) left over from the enrichment process and to partially reduce the HL-LL waste to elements with shorter half-lives. It will then become conceivable to do without uranium ore extraction and processing for a very long time (on the order of a thousand years). This will eliminate waste production by the upstream segment of the industry.

In discussing the management of radioactive waste, it is important to distinguish between
the term "storage" which means temporary storage and the term "disposal" which is definitive.  

We review below, the management of:

  • Very low level waste (VLLW): the bulk of the waste a large part of which has, in line with other countries, become eligible for recycling in the circular economy since the publication in February 2022 of decrees setting the threshold below which they enter the category of regular industrial waste,
  • Low- and intermediate-level short-lived waste (LILW-SL) and their containment and disposal facilities,
  • Low-level long-lived waste (LLW-LL): they are mostly radiferous[1] They are currently stored on site and their disposal is planned in clay layers at a depth of about 100 m. They account for a very small part of the total radioactivity.
  • Intermediate- and high-level long-lived waste (ILW-LL & HLW-LL): they are stored either on site (graphite, etc.) or in glass matrices encased in stainless steel containers (“skeleton” and fission products). Their volume is small enough that they are stored at the La Hague site ever since the beginning, pending their disposal in perfectly stable deep geological layers in CIGEO[2].

All of these disposal activities are tightly controlled under three laws enacted in 1991, 2006 and 2016 and are supervised by members of parliament. They are managed by a government agency, ANDRA (Agence Nationale pour les Déchets Radioactifs – National agency for the management of radioactive waste), and controlled, as are the other activities in the cycle, by the ASN (Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire – National Safety Authority).

Note that in France, with more than 50 years of nuclear power generation; more than 2100[3] reactor-years of pressurized water reactor operation; 6.1 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions avoided if the same amount of energy had been produced by combined cycle gas turbines; neither the waste nor the power plants themselves have caused any harm to the environment or to man.

Few industrial sectors can boast such a track record.

To conclude, contrary to claims that the "nuclear waste" problem remains, we must hold that there is no radioactive waste problem. There is a suitable and perennial solution for all categories of radioactive waste.

[1]     Recent and former industrial activities are the source of waste that is not very radioactive, but much more voluminous than the preceding ones: radiferous waste. As their name indicates, they contain traces of radium and its descendants from the decay chain of uranium, which are present in trace amounts in the earth's crust. In addition to radium, which has a long half-life (1600 years), there is radon, a natural radioactive gas with a half-life of four days. Radiferous waste is classified as low-level, long-lived waste (LLW-LL). It will be the subject of specific conditioning and disposal, currently being studied by ANDRA.

[2]     CIGEO is the HL-LL and Il-LL deep geological waste disposal facility project at Bures in France managed by ANDRA, the French agency in charge of nuclear waste management. Satisfactory tests have been performed and authorizations for its opening are in progress.

[3]     This refers to the number of years of operation of the reactors and not to the years of operation at full power equivalent, the criterion adopted by the IAEA.


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