French plutonium policy questioned by a former senior EDF official

Christian Stoffaës, a former director of planning at Électricité de France, the French utility company, and founder of the "Cercle des ingénieurs economistes" published an op-ed article "Plutonium : le débat manqué de la transition énergétique" challenging France's long-standing policy of reprocessing spent fuel and using the recovered plutonium in MOX fuel. IPFM publishes a translation of the original article.

Plutonium: A debate missed by the energy transition

From the beginning, choices in the French nuclear enterprise have been dominated by nuclear material issues. Will this still be the case tomorrow, at a time of budgetary cuts in the nuclear sector and at EDF, when the atomic bomb is no longer a priority?

By Christian Stoffaës

After having long been protected by its monopoly, EDF is now facing serious budgetary cuts. Plutonium is very expensive so the following question should arise: what is its purpose today?

The plutonium sector (euphemistically referred to as the "fuel cycle" to avoid pronouncing the inflammatory name of an evil material filled with mystery) is the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, the breeder reactors renamed "fourth generation", and the MOX fuel.

To understand this chain of choices, one has to go back to after the end of the Second World War and the national ambition to acquire the atomic bomb, indispensable to maintaining the status of great power. Then we must look at the periods of dispute - which I experienced from the inside, as a young mining engineer [graduating from the École des Mines], collaborator of the founding fathers Pierre Guillaumat and André Giraud, and later as director of planning at EDF.

Two possible paths

To build the bomb, it is necessary to acquire fissile materials. Two paths are possible, both complex and expensive. Enriched uranium, produced through isotopic separation: with a high fraction of 235, it is of military grade; with a low fraction, it is used as fuel to produce electricity. The plutonium path consists first in irradiating natural uranium and then separating chemically the plutonium produced (also called reprocessing).

The transmutation happens in atomic piles, consequently renamed nuclear power reactors when the hierarchy of their purposes was later inverted - the production of electricity becoming the primary goal, and plutonium a side-product, a "waste."

Atomic sector vs electricity sector, who must decide?

What is the product and what is the side-product? This is the perfect dual technology, with mixed civilian and military purposes. To manage the nuclear sector, two state controlled institutions were created at the end of World War II: the Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique [CEA, Atomic Energy Commission] and Électricité de France.

Since then, the question has been to know who should make the decisions related to strategic materials, when the legal texts - as well as the political balance of power - give equal legitimacy to both the atomic and electricity sectors. Much more than strategic public companies, these are two powerful social entities, two major institutions of the new post-war France. On one side: planning, investments in reconstruction, the CGT [Confederation Generale du Travail, General Confederation of Workers, one of France's major labor unions], public service, an ubiquitous presence over the whole territory, in every town, in every family; on the other: the great scientists, national independence, the Gaullists.

In the name of the strategic imperative, CEA imposed its choice; the development of gas-graphite reactors that allowed generating plutonium from natural uranium, while France still only possessed one single enrichment plant of a modest size dedicated to military applications. Yet, CEA was not chosen to operate the power plants, unlike in the USSR, for example, where it is the atomic ministry that managed the nuclear power plants and not the electricity sector.

EDF, for its part, preferred Westinghouse's pressurized-water reactors: but these had the serious problem of being American. While almost being accused of betraying the national interest, EDF made the correct technical choice, which eventually prevailed everywhere, while England failingly continued pursuing gas-graphite reactors.

The great nuclear Yalta

After the accident in Saint-Laurent-des-Eaux in 1969 [a partial meltdown of the core of the gas-graphite reactor], the dispute was resolved first by the renunciation of gas-graphite reactors (who remembers that the pioneering Fessenheim power plant was supposed to be a gas-graphite reactor?) and the appropriation (for a modest cost and an important French success) of the Westinghouse technology, frenchified by EDF and Framatome; second, when the CEA undertook the construction of the Tricastin enrichment plant and the reprocessing plant at La Hague, the successor of the Marcoule site.

In the ensuing agreement, EDF imposed the choice of its favorite reactor technology. In return, the CEA reasoning about the fuel cycle prevailed as a continuing justification for plutonium production.

In reality, at the time, we didn't really need more [plutonium] for the French nuclear forces. The atomic argument changed: the challenge then was to recycle [spent fuel] to feed the breeder reactor, a source of almost renewable energy, and to fabricate the MOX fuel, which brings nothing compared to enriched uranium. EDF accepted without complaint to pay the heavy bill for the plutonium industry, which was eventually charged to the taxpayer.

After twenty years of harmonious co-existence, which allowed the remarkable success of our nuclear program, the rivalry came back, this time for the leadership in the exports of the "French nuclear team," the Cogema-Framatome merger in 2000 creating Areva. This broke the delicate balance of forces and Areva set itself (recklessly) as a rival of its client [EDF].

Debating the plutonium sector does not weaken France's choice

Now, the authority [over the nuclear sector] has been clarified under the auspices of the richest partner. The logic of financial power, championed by EDF, has finally prevailed over the strategic objective. The atomic sector, finally recognizing that it does not have the means to meet its industrial ambition, can no longer impose its choices on EDF. Now, competitiveness and a hunt to cut unnecessary costs are required.

However, EDF, rich as it was, has now started to experience serious financial constraints. It is besieged on all sides by competition and lower electricity prices, political support for renewable energy, safety and maintenance requirements, and the cost of its international ambitions.

So, will we soon wonder about the cost-benefit of plutonium? Yesterday, a Promethean priceless material, soon an atomic waste? If the plutonium sector is a choice endured in the name of the strategic imperative and the result of an outdated competition, a transparency measure could consist in incorporating its cost in the tax associated with the public supply of electricity, similar to the cost of renewable energy (included in the CSPE [Contribution au Service Public de l'Electricite, contribution to the public supply of electricity]), and of the same order of magnitude, a few billion euros.

The economic viability of the French nuclear choice, yesterday unquestioned, is today under review in a tense financial environment.

But nuclear power is not a monolith: it is possible to discuss the plutonium sector without weakening the entire French nuclear enterprise. Surprisingly, this question has not been asked yet: it is the missed debate missed of the energy transition. Even more so when the time is long gone where Pierre Messmer, father of the nuclear power program, was declaring before the National Assembly: "There are military secrets that translate into budgetary silences"...