France: Official plan admits problems with management of uranium and plutonium

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

On 4 June 2010, the French government published the new National Radioactive Materials and Wastes Management Scheme (Plan national de gestion des matières et déchets radioactifs - PNGMDR). This report, drafted by the state authorities and formally discussed with stakeholders, is revised every three years and presents the current national strategy for radioactive waste management, under the 2006 Act for the sustainable management of radioactive materials and wastes (loi n° 2006-739 du 28 juin 2006 de programme relative à la gestion durable des matières et déchets radioactifs).

The general aim of the report is to discuss the implementation status of management options for the various categories of nuclear materials and wastes, as well as existing and foreseen storage and disposal capacities. One important issue is the separation between "waste" and "material" inventories. This distinction was introduced by a specific feature of the 2006 Act, which stipulates that, contrary to the general rule whereby any by-product of industrial production is to be considered waste unless it would be effectively re-used, a radioactive by-product is to be considered waste only if there is no foreseen plan to possibly re-use it.

In practice, this rule provides an exemption for any by-products containing uranium or plutonium be dealt with as waste. The operators simply need to declare that they intend to re-use by-products as part of a "reprocessing-recycling" scheme, no matter whether this could take place in the short-term and existing facilities or in hypothetical long-term scenarios. This applies to natural, enriched or depleted uranium, spent fuel, reprocessed uranium or separated plutonium, all stored in large quantities with a "re-usable material" label.

This laxity is key to maintain the industry and authorities' claim that the "reprocessing-recycling" option would be reducing the volume of final waste to be dealt with, compared to the direct disposal of spent fuel. But this would only work if the massive stocks of "re-usable materials" were effectively to be re-used in a foreseeable future, the likeliness of which is not and has never been demonstrated.

While fully endorsing this "re-usable" approach, the report highlights the loopholes of an all-inclusive re-use theory. First evidence comes with the figures on uranium and plutonium stocks stored in France in various forms. These are taken from the official inventory established by the National agency for the management of radioactive waste, ANDRA. The inventory provides, as detailed in the following tables, figures corresponding to the stocks declared in storage by the operators as of the end of 2007, and to the projected stocks in 2020 and 2030, based on the operators' own assumptions on future management options.

Inventory of nuclear materials (uranium, plutonium) in France, as declared in the end of 2007 and projected in 2020 and 2030

End of 2007End of 20201End of 20301
Natural uranium extracted from mines (tHM)27,61332,01332,013
Enriched uranium2 (tHM)3,3061,7642,714
Uranium separated from reprocessed spent fuel (tHM)23,950336,00049,000
Depleted uranium (tHM)254,820332,324452,324
Fuel contained in reactors   
    UOX (tHM)4,5003,8601,100
    REU* (tHM)802900
    MOX (tHM)2904400
    Research reactor (tHM)56  
Spent fuel in storage, to be reprocessed   
    UOX (tHM)11,504713,45011,000
    REU (tHM)25181,0201,320
    MOX (tHM)1,02892,3202,550
    FBR (tHM)10410104104
    Research reactor (t)421100
    Defense (t)14112230298
Plutonium separated from reprocessed spent fuel13 (tHM)       82145553

Source: adapted from ASN, PNGMDR, 2010, based on ANDRA, National Inventory, 2009 
* REU=re-enriched reprocessed uranium

1. Figures are provided based on modeling, however, quantities could not be forecasted with that degree of precision. 
2. Including enriched uranium in fresh fuel, particularly incorporated in fresh UOX fuel at reactor sites. 
3. Of which 21,180 tHM of French RepU and 2,770 tHM belonging to foreign customers. 
4. Of which 7,134 t stored as a by-product at rare earth production sites, and 2,265 belonging to nuclear operators. 
5. Thorium and uranium arising from the processing of raw materials for the production of rare earths. 
6. Including around 3 tHM of FBR fuel in Ph�nix. 
7. Of which 3,584 tHM at reactor sites, and 7,920 tHM, including 10 tHM belonging to foreign customers, at La Hague. 
8. Of which 31 tHM at reactor sites, and 220 tHM at La Hague. 
9. Of which 308 tHM at reactor sites, and 720 tHM, including 10 tHM belonging to foreign customers, at La Hague. 
10. Fuel from the Superph�nix reactor, stored on-site at Creys-Malville. 
11. Of which 40 tHM of FBR fuel from Ph�nix and 1 tHM of research reactor fuel stored at CEA sites, and 1 tHM at La Hague. This total does not include some spent fuel from demonstrators or research reactors that the operators explicitly do not plan to reprocess, and therefore are regarded as waste and not re-usable materials. 
12. Spent fuel from reactors used to produce nuclear materials for the military program and from nuclear submarine reactors. 
13. Information on plutonium separated for military purposes is classified and therefore not included. 
14. Including 61 tHM stored at La Hague, 10 tHM being used in MOX fuel fabrication processes, 9 tHM in unirradiated MOX or FBR fuel, mostly at reactors sites, and 2 tHM stored at CEA sites. The total is split between 60 tHM of French plutonium, including 29 tHM of separated plutonium belonging to EDF at La Hague, and 22 tHM of plutonium belonging to foreign customers. It should be noted that the relative shares of the plutonium by processing stage is not identical with the French government's declaration to the IAEA.


The table illustrates the failure to reduce or even stabilize plutonium and uranium stocks under the current "reprocessing-recycling" scheme - based on the re-use in operating PWRs of reprocessed uranium in re-enriched uranium fuel (REU) and of depleted uranium and separated plutonium in MOX fuel. The stocks of spent REU and MOX fuel would logically increase, as there's no plan to reprocess them for re-using their uranium and plutonium in today's reactors. But so would the stock of reprocessed uranium, while those of unreprocessed spent UOX fuel and of separated plutonium (once withdrawn the foreign part, to be sent back) would merely stabilize or slightly decrease at best.

The industry therefore clearly manages its fuel "cycle" in a way that creates large stocks of "re-usable" materials, which won't be re-used in the current fleet of reactors. The management scheme set out by the PNGMDR consequently relies very much on a hypothetical next fleet of reactors to manage these stocks. The vision of the French industry and Government is that they would feed the so-called 4th generation fast breeder reactors to be deployed as of 2040.

Although the report questionably calls this "the reference industrial solution" for the long-term management of stored nuclear materials, it acknowledges that "the re-use of the majority of radioactive materials implies that nuclear programs are pursued in France or abroad", a condition that "cannot be guaranteed on the long-term". The report therefore concludes that "it is important to assess options for the management of these materials if they were eventually deemed a waste". As obvious as this might sound, this request breaks with the past self-confidence: in fact, apart from some research on the feasibility of geological disposal of spent fuel, such studies have never been carried out by the French industry or authorities. The PNGMDR opens the issue by requesting all nuclear operators to elaborate appropriate assessments before the end of 2010.