Fuel "recycling" a myth, a French report involuntarily demonstrates

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

French industry and government assertions about the "closed" character of the nuclear fuel "cycle" are misrepresentating the facts. This is the main finding of the High Committee for transparency and information on nuclear safety (Haut comité pour la transparence et l'information sur la sécurité nucléaire - HCTISN), which on 12 July 2010 published its conclusions on "the transparency of the fuel cycle management".

The independent Committee was created by the 2006 Act on Nuclear Transparency, comprises operators, state authorities, trade-unions and environmental NGOs and advises Government and Parliament on nuclear issues. The report had been commissioned by the Minister of Environment and the Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Options (Office parlementaire d'évaluation des choix scientifiques et technologiques - OPECST) and was triggered by a controversy in October 2009 about French uranium exports to Russia. A TV documentary had shown that reprocessed uranium was sent to Russia for storage with little realistic perspective to be used, contradicting official assertions about the recycling of uranium and its benefits. The end of this uranium waste trade, confirmed by AREVA in May 2010, was reported by Greenpeace as effective as of 11 July 2010. Incidentally, the HCTISN report was presented to the Minister of environment the very next day.

Although the report centers on this issue, providing unreleased public information on the long-standing natural, enriched, reprocessed and depleted uranium trade between France and Russia, it also develops a broader analysis of the nuclear materials of the French nuclear fuel chain, with a focus on current practices and future prospects for the reuse of uranium and plutonium.

Contrary to its claim, the report falls short "a detailed analysis of the flows of materials and wastes produced at the various stages of the fuel cycle, and of the stockpiles of (useable) 'materials' held by the organizations within the nuclear industry", for it mostly provides a summarized chart of nominal yearly flows for recent and upcoming years. The results are presented in the table below. The shift between 2007-2009 and 2010 corresponds to the end of the past contract between EDF and AREVA and the agreement reached over a new contract. The main changes include an increased efficiency in enrichment, allowing for a 6% drop in natural uranium needs, from 8,100 tHM to 7,600 tHM per year, a 23.5% increase of reprocessing with 1,050 tHM per year instead of 850 tHM, and a further use of 37 tHM of REU fuel and 20 tHM of MOX fuel from the 2009 level of 37 tHM and 100 tHM respectively.

These figures allow for some calculations of the recycling rate to be compared with the official statements about 96% of the fuel being reusable through reprocessing (as it allows to recover the 95% uranium content and 1% plutonium content of average uranium spent fuel). However, while such calculations were introduced by participants and discussed within the working group, the devastating results do not appear in the report. Instead, the report would shift the focus from the actual level of material reuse to the calculation of the savings of primary materials. It concludes to a saving in natural uranium due to recycling of 12%, which could reach 17% with the projected material flows starting 2010.

Although dominated by voices of the industry and authorities and therefore unwilling to shed a crude light on the situation, the report concludes that "some of the materials arising from the fuel cycle are not effectively reused in the current situation". It consequently acknowledges that "some elements in the communication of the nuclear operators may have lead to the interpretation that a fuel cycle where all nuclear materials arising from spent fuel reprocessing were immediately and in totality recycled, without clearly exposing the limitations to such a comprehensive reuse". In less diplomatic words, the representation promoted by the French nuclear industry - and government authorities using the same language and illustrations - of a "closed" fuel cycle is clearly misleading. The HCTISN therefore recommends to rather refer to a "cycle with spent fuel processing" as opposed to the direct disposal option.

The failure of the report to discuss the full implications of its findings explains why several members of the HCTISN declined to endorse the conclusions. Now that the myth to achieve a "closed fuel cycle" in operating reactors has been officially busted, the "dissidents" call for pursuing the HCTISN's work in view of a comprehensive assessment of the consequences on French nuclear fuel management.

Annual flows of nuclear materials for the French nuclear fuel cycle, nominal average 2007-2009 and projected from 2010 (in tHM)

  Average yearly flow 
Projected yearly flow              
from 2010
(1)Use of natural uranium8,1007,600
(2)Production of enriched uranium 
(of which re-enriched uranium from (9))
(3)Use of depleted uranium (in fresh MOX)91.5109.5
(4)Fresh uranium fuel loaded 
(of which re-enriched uranium fuel REU)
(5=8+3)Fresh MOX fuel loaded100120
(6)Electricity generated420 TWh420 TWh
(7)Spent fuel unloaded1,1701,170
(8)Separated plutonium8.510.5
(9)Use of reprocessed uranium (RepU)300600
(10)Waste arising from reprocessing7,100 m37,100 m3
(11)Quantities added in storage  
     Depleted uranium7,330a)7,330b)
     Separated plutonium8.510.5
     Spent fuel
      (of which REU and MOX)
     Reprocessed uranium800900c)
(12)Quantities taken from storage  
     Separated plutonium8.510.5
     Spent fuel8501,050
 Reprocessed uranium300600
(13)Reprocessing of spent fuel8501,050

Source: HCTISN, 2010

a) The 7,330 tHM number is apparently a mistake, as the quantity of depleted uranium entering storage should correspond to the difference between natural uranium and enriched uranium, minored by the quantity of depleted uranium used for MOX: Line (1) ‑ (2) ‑ (3). The right number should therefore be: 6,938.5 tHM
b) See previous note; the correct number here should be 6,440.5 tHM. 
c) The number apparently does not account for the reprocessing of re-enriched uranium fuel (REU).