From France: The Nuclear Story

By November 27, 2007Energy

Keith Smith, the NAM’s director of research, is on nuclear power tour of France with other association, business and think-tank types, a trip organized by the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Timely jaunt. President Nicolas Sarkozy has just announced a $12 billion deal with the People’s Republic of China to sell China French-designed reactors and nuclear fuel. The French company involved is energy giant Areva.

Areva said that the $11.86 billion (£5.7 billion) contract to build two European pressurised water reactors (EPRs) and to supply more than a decade’s worth of fuel was a global record for the industry.

The EPR is the world’s most powerful nuclear reactor design. Each unit is capable of generating 1,700 megawatts of electricity. After Finland and France, China will be home to only the third and fourth EPRs to have been built.

On Monday, the NEI group visited Areva’s nuclear processing facility in La Hague (Normandy region), part of the company’s Back End Division. Here’s Keith’s report:

I’m currently on the train back to Paris from La Hague (Normandy region). We visited Areva’s nuclear processing facility there where spent raw nuclear material goes through the process of being recycled by stripping out the residual waste, thus creating new operational fuel. The waste is then sent back to the original producer (in accordance with French law) or if it is created in france, it is temporarily held at the La Hague site until a permanent final geological solution is found.

The operations there are truly amazing. If 100 kilos of fuel are placed in a nuclear reactor, 3 years later one would find only 1kg uranium-235, 95kg of uranium-238 (2kg will have been turned into plutonium-239, and 1kg actually undergoes fission) and then 3kg of fission products. So only 3-4% is actually waste that gets created.

This facility is the global leader in nuke fuel reprocessing servicing many customers such as the french electrical board (EDF) German and Japanese clients. The Germans have a hesitation with nuclear energy though, and currently there is a moratorium in place to shift from nuclear by 2020.

Public sentiment actually welcomes the reprocessing facility. Its a huge jobs generator in the area supply 10,000 jobs directly and indirectly in the region, comprising nearly 1/5 of all jobs in the Cherbourg region of Normandy.

For Keith Smith’s full report, please continue in the extended entry.

Public sentiment actually welcomes the reprocessing facility. It is a huge jobs generator in the area supply 10,000 jobs directly and indirectly in the region, comprising nearly one-fifth of all jobs in the Cherbourg region of Normandy. The facility also “fuels” the local economy and govts. The largest taxation levels come from local govt entities and are based on assets and land ownership, NOT income like in the U.S. model. Because the reprocessing is very capital intensive, the taxes are quite heavy. The facility actually funds approx 1/2 of the local governments operating revenues!

The casks of spent fuel are transported very safelty in steel encased rail tanks that can withstand ultra-high heat, impact and falls of over 9 meters. The casks come to area by boat (from Japan) rail (euro-customers) and trucks (from French reactors). We saw the casks come in on a truck with two small security cars as they travellled through small picturesque Normandy villages. There is no scrutiny here as there is perceived in the U.S. (however industry polling routinely shows 70 percent public approval for nuclear energy). The French people know that the spent fuel travels safely near there homes on their journey to be returned in a recycled form to reactors to generate more electricity. Nuclear energy provides for 78 percent of all electricity produced here, for much more than just baseload power but also peak power.

The waste that’s created is quite safe. In fact, We were able to walk over the sealed containers of waste in one large room. The waste is held in a vitrified state in sealed steel “hulls”. Even the water that the spent fuel is first held in is safe. The water, once used, is released into the Channel with traces of tridium, its so trace that its only 0.03 millisievert per year. For reference, I was exposed to more radiation on my flight over to France! A high altitude flight has an impact of over 1 full mSv/yr.

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