A French documentary on nuclear waste

On 20 February 2010 Greenpeace issued a call for a moratorium on shipments of reprocessed uranium from France to Russia. Activists had been repeatedly blocking rail shipments of the material from the La Hague reprocessing plant to Cherbourg port.

Parliamentary enquiry, government statements, Greenpeace actions are a few of the stunning consequences of a 100-minutes TV documentary Déchets - Le Cauchemar du Nucléaire (Waste - The Nuclear Nightmare) broadcast by the Franco-German station ARTE for the first time on 13 October 2009 and re-broadcast by various television stations since. The documentary presents the results of an investigation into nuclear waste management in the US, Russia, Germany and France. The authors Eric Guéret and Laure Noualhat were often accompanied by technicians of the French independent radiation-monitoring lab CRIIRAD. They detected and measured radiation in many places where they went, from the Columbia river close to the US nuclear weapons lab in Hanford to the Soviet counterpart Mayak in the Urals. Some of the most remarkable scenes include a Geiger counter that goes crazy under a publicly accessible bridge over the Techa river and a scene outside the French "plutonium factory" called reprocessing plant at La Hague. In the latter case a spokesman for operator AREVA, when asked about radiation levels in the fields outside the plant, stated after a long hesitation that he would not call this contamination, but "absence of impact" before stumbling: "Well, we'll redo that one..."

However, remarkably enough, the largest impact had a simple mass calculation that the journalists presented. Constantly facing the AREVA PR that states that 96% of the nuclear materials are "recycled" through the reprocessing scheme, the reporters inquired where the recovered uranium, roughly 95% of the mass of spent fuel, does end up. In fact, AREVA has been sending most of the reprocessed uranium (23,000 tons were still stored in France at the end of 2008), to Russia officially for re-enrichment. In fact, even if all of that uranium had indeed been re-enriched, which is not the case, over 90% of the mass remains in Russia as enrichment tails. This material is waste, because there is absolutely no economic incentive to re-enrich it, in particular considering the hundreds of thousands of tons of "clean", first generation enrichment tails that are stored in Russia and in the other major enrichment countries, including in France (close to 260,000 tons at two sites).

The message that AREVA's "recycling" ratio had to be corrected from 95% to less than 10% of the original mass send a shockwave through the French political landscape. The minister of Environment asked for clarifications and the parliamentary Office for Scientific and Technological Option Assessment (OPECST) organized public hearings. During the hearings EDF has admitted that, apart from a period of about five years, 100% of the reprocessed uranium had been sent to Russia. Between 2000 and approximately 2005 (the EDF representative was not certain) reprocessed uranium was sent to URENCO's Dutch plant that can re-enrich reprocessed uranium (contrary to URENCO's UK and German plants). EDF signed a contract with AREVA to use part of the Georges-Besse-2 plant, currently under construction, to enrich reprocessed uranium for a period of about 10 years starting in 2013. The French Nuclear Safety Authority ASN announced that by the end 2010 it will have finished studies into the potential requalification of reprocessed uranium as waste.

The full version of the film "Déchets - Le Cauchemar du Nucléaire", by Eric Guéret and Laure Noualhat (in French and German with English subtitles) is available online. ARTE-Editions has also published a 210-page book by Laure Noualhat with the same title (in French). It can be ordered here.