Less than 4% of French nuclear fuel "recycled", NGOs calculate

This is the fourth in a series of four posts on the openness of the French "closed" fuel cycle

Several members of the French High Committee for transparency and information on nuclear safety (HCTISN) declined to endorse the report it published on 12 July 2010 on the transparency of the management of the French nuclear fuel cycle (see Part 3 of  this series). In an explanatory note, the representatives of various environmental NGOs (Greenpeace, ACRO, France Nature Environnement), backed by another member, representative of the Network of Local Commissions for Information near nuclear sites (ANCLI) "emphasize that the discussions did not enable a complete and representative picture to be reached at this stage" and "call for the group's work to be continued". (1)

Complaining that the deadlines set for the official publication of the report did not allow for the group to discuss some of the questions raised, they could only introduce a short statement of reservations after the report's executive summary. These reservations are exposed in detail in an explanatory note (in French).

The note insists that it is the focus of the working group's referral on uranium trade with Russia, poor methodology and the unrealistically tight schedule that explain the shortcomings, and expresses confidence in the capacity of the HCTISN to "bring the work to its conclusion". Nevertheless, the members point to a number of major failures in what they call "an incomplete and unfinished work".

The authors' first concern is that the report centers on the Russian dimension of the French fuel chain but "does not provide a historical perspective". Therefore, the information provided in the report, based on 2007-2009 annual flows and projections for 2010, is clearly insufficient to account for the evolution of the fuel chain management through decades and the origin of the resulting stockpiles.

Another concern is that the report "does not elucidate all the implications of the reprocessing strategy". In particular, it does not discuss the role of the specific definition of radioactive waste and reusable nuclear materials introduced in French legislation in 2006, which prevents any material containing uranium or plutonium to become waste as long as the industry can indicate a potential way to re-use it sometime in an undefined future.

In addition, the report would "not provide all the information required for a full assessment of the cycle". Given the historical heritage and the complexity mentioned above, plus the increasing overlapping at most stages of the fuel chain between French and foreign interests (French operators using foreign suppliers and providing services to foreign customers), the available data, "abundant as it appears, provide no more than a minority of the elements needed". Moreover, the note points to obvious errors and inconsistencies. The report fails to provide accurate data on the existing plutonium stockpiles, presenting a balance of flows that simply contradicts French official declarations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Besides, there is no mention at all in the report of existing and growing stocks of MOX fuel fabrication wastes.

Nevertheless, the report presents some data and calculations on the flows of nuclear materials. Regarding this critical issue, the note emphasizes that it "prevaricates over the evaluation of the present level of 'recycling'". The "dissident" HCTISN members developed further calculations that they presented to the working group but were not included in the report. These calculations could be summarized from the table below, derived from the table established by the HCTISN.

The note proposes two ways to assess the level of effective recycling of "re-usable" materials to be found in the French fuel chain. The first one is based on the quantity of fuel unloaded (see line (2) in the following table) representing 100%, and the share of materials contained in that spent fuel that is effectively reused, namely as separated plutonium in MOX fuel (see (4)), and as the re-enriched part of reprocessed uranium in re-enriched uranium (REU) fuel (see (3)). The note concludes that 3.9% of the content of spent fuel is currently re-used (see (6)), a number that directly compares to the 96% figure claimed by the industry. The planned increase in reprocessing and recycling flows as of 2010 could only bring this, theoretically, to 7.3%.

The note further introduces a calculation based on the primary quantity of natural uranium used in the fuel cycle (see (1)), as 100%, which allows for taking into account the use of depleted uranium for MOX fuel (see (5)). The level of re-use of primary material (see (7)) declines to 1.7% under past years conditions, and 2.6% under projected conditions as of 2010. Additional calculations based on available data show that the average level of recycling over the period 1994-2009 is 2% for the recycling of spent fuel and 1.2% for the recycling of natural uranium.

Annual flows of nuclear materials re-used and stored without use in the French fuel chain, average 2007-2009 and projected from 2010 (in tHM) 

  Average annual flow              
Projected annual flow 
from 2010
(1)Use of natural uranium8,1007,600
(2)Fuel loaded / unloaded 
(1,033 + 37 + 100)
(975 + 75 + 120)
(3)Use of re-enriched rep. uranium in fresh REU fuel 3775
(4)Use of separated plutonium in fresh MOX fuel8.510.5
(5)Use of depleted uranium in fresh MOX fuel91.5109.5
(6)Recycling of spent fuel = (3+4) / (2)3.9%7.3%
(7)Recycling of primary material = (3+4+5) / (1)1.7%2.6%
(8)Unused depleted uranium6,938.56,440.5
(9)Unused spent fuel  
(10)Unused reprocessed uranium500397.5
(11)Unused depleted reprocessed uranium263525
(12)Unused separated plutonium00
(13)Minor actinides and fission products3442
Source: WISE-Paris, based on HCTISN, 2010

The note emphasizes that, while 1.7% of the natural uranium input is effectively re-used, it is no less than 97.8%, which fall into the category of 'usable' materials and is stored as such (8 to 12). Conversely, only 0.5%, corresponding to the quantity of minor actinides and fission products vitrified after reprocessing (13), are officially considered as waste. It is obvious that the plans to re-use the large and growing stockpiles essentially depend on the deployment of a large fleet of new reactors that need to be FBRs if depleted uranium and plutonium were to be managed this way. The report is criticized for taking this future deployment for granted, therefore failing to address the consequences if this plan fails or alternatives are identified as preferred option for whatever reasons.

Finally, the HCTISN report is dismissed for its weakness in refuting the language, figures and representations used by operators and state agencies around the concept of 'closed fuel cycle', which is considered as deliberately misleading.

1) The author, who has been invited as an expert representing WISE-Paris to participate in the working group of the High Committee, has also endorsed the explanatory note.