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Eye on France: What to do with nuclear leftovers?

media Above ground, above board: the French nuclear electricity plant at Creys-Malville. JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT / AFP

Today sees the opening of another national debate in France. We move from the future of spending power to the longer-term future of nuclear power, specifically what to do with the dangerous stuff that’s left over when the atomic generating stations are finished with it.

In today’s Paris paper Libération, the physicist Bernard Laponche pleads for an end to all talk about burying nuclear waste, currently presented in some circles as the best of a bad lot of solutions. He says burial is the worst possible way to go, simply because it’s irreversible.

Today’s debate is an acronymic nightmare.

The central topic is the PNGMDR, that’s the National Plan for the Management of Radioactive Waste. The debate is organised under the auspices of Andra, the national agency responsible for the same bad stuff. And the crucial question concerns Cigéo, the Industrial Centre for Geological Storage, currently being constructed near the French town of Bure in east-central France.

The site was chosen for its geological stability . . . not a grain of sand has shifted in the past 100 million years . . . and for its thick layers of slate, reputedly very good at keeping water out and radioactivity in.

The idea is to drill a hole 500 metres deep, install the nuclear waste in side galleries, seal it all up, and hope for the best. In 2.1 million years, the neptunium 237 sent down the hole will be half as dangerous as it is today; the iodine 129 will take 16 million years, but is not considered a high-risk substance; and, as for chlorine 36, a child could safely play with it after just 300,000 years.

Something has to be done. Last year, France had 1.6 million cubic metres of radioactive waste, most of it from nuclear power stations. A long-term solution must be found.

A disastrous legacy for future generations

Bernard Laponche says the idea of burying the stuff that glows in the dark is madness. How, he asks, can we impose an irreversible situation on hundreds of thousands of future human generations, knowing that the so-called solution is not really satisfactory?

If one single container leaked in the course of the next few million years, he warns, it would be impossible to go down and patch it up.

Bernard says the containers will give off hydrogen, and that can explode. So the underground galleries will have to be ventilated, continuously.

But what if there’s a power-cut? Because of an accident, a strike, a malicious act. After ten days without air conditioning, our glowing containers are going to be buzzing like blue-bottles in a jar.

Not to mention the possibility of an earthquake.

Already, in Germany, the nuclear authorities face a bill in the billions to extract waste buried in a disused salt mine where the walls have started to collapse. And products from the underground chemical dump at Stocamine in French Alsace have been leaking into the water table since a fire ravaged the site in the early 2000s. The government has abandoned the idea of trying to go back down to fix the problem, because it would cost a fortune. So, Europe’s largest ground-water basin is at imminent and continuous risk of contamination.

The problem's not going away. Don't rush!

Contemporary nuclear policy was established in the 1960s and has never been seriously overhauled since. But the waste heap keeps on growing and many of the reactors are close to, or even past, their sell-by date.

Bernard Laponche wants us to wait. He says we can stock the stuff in sealed containers, stock those in ventilated and secure sheds on or near the surface. And that will give science and technology a chance to come up with a different kind of solution. He reminds us that nuclear science is less than a century old.

Already experiments using lasers and neutron bombardment have worked to reduce the radioactivity of plutonium. At least in the laboratory.

Laponche thinks the 35 billion euros budgeted for the Bure burial site would be much better spent on short-term storage and additional research.

He says, since we’re talking about such long-term risks, we should at least take a couple of centuries to work out a proper strategy.

This particular debate is expected to continue until September.

But the central question won’t be disappearing any time soon.

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