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Only 1% of nuclear fuel is recyclable. What is left for the next generation?

Windscale, renamed Sellafield, UK; Three Mile Island, USA; Chernobyl, Russia and Chernobyl, these accidents reinforce the dangers of nuclear reactors.

French nuclear companies maintain 96% 0f the uranium used in nuclear power stations can be upgraded. Then what are we leaving for our children? A meeting in Caen, France in April concerning nuclear waste which will reconvene in September will determine technical, economic, political, societal factors along with the ethics of the situation.

Everyone is concerned with nuclear waste which deemads public support. Both matter and waste are the chief concerns. The Caen meeting made a simple deduction that radioactive waste is potentially recyclable. The concept of a 'closed cycle' with 96% of radioactive waste usable in a economic form by means of a novel production system is proposed. An explanation is required.

What happens to the uranium used in French Nuclear Power Stations?

French nuclear power stations have accumulated 1.6 million cubic metres of radioactive waste by the end of 2017 which represents 99.8% of total radioactivity - the most problematic. Each year 1200 tons of fuel is used to produce energy in the form of uranium in 4 metre long metal tubes. These assemblies are frozen for four years in deactivation ponds they are then transported by train to Valogne by means of 200 train transports annually. Factories at La Hague and d'Orano with ponds continue to freeze the uranium for a further 4 or 6 years. Treatment consists of compacting and placing the material in containers, by the end of 2017 the site at La Hague counts 15,600 such containers which are from the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Belgium.

This waste is stored at Bure and will be stored at Cigéo which will enter service between 2026 and 2027. This fuel, 4% of which consists of products of fission generated from nuclear reactions. They are incorporated into a matrix of glass, the numbers of these containers have risen to 16,000 at the end of 2017, representing 99% of French nuclear waste. This fuel contains 1% plutonium. this is from Melox d'Orano at Marcoule which manufactures a new fuel called MOX, composed of 8% plutonium and 92% a sub product of the natural enrichment of uranium. In fact 22 reactors of 900 megawatts use MOX a total of 120 tonnes per annum. From 1994 - 2013 an electrician recovered a new fuel mostly enriched uranium, which was used in 4 nuclear reactors but this usage has ceased.


Only 1% of plutonium is recyclable. Certainly the manufacture of MOX allowing the recycling of 120 tonnes of uranium to be recycled annually rendering recycling of nuclear fuels only bout 10%. The frozen ponds of nuclear waste at La Hague could hypothetically be utilised. The future is uncertain because the MOX reactors are now the oldest in France. These reactors could be converted to next generation 1300MW reactors under future government energy plans between 2028 and 2032. The use of recyclables in particular treated uranium will be integrated into using at least 4% of nuclear waste using at least 1300 tonnes per annum along with 1000 tonnes generated annually. Unfortunately, recycled waste for fueling reactors is not possible alone.


Retreating uranium will help to conserve 10% of the natural uranium currently available thanks to the recovery of plutonium and the upgrade of treated uranium. This reduces the storing of nuclear waste destined for geological storage. Giving radioactive material a second chance to generate potential energy while the volume of waste remains stable is not reassuring. Greenpeace France describes nuclear waste being used as fuel or recyclable as a myth. Retreatment aggravates the risks, increases train transports whilst generating extra waste, recycled waste is filtered and the rejected waste pollutes the air and sea at La Hague. The Union of Concerned Scientists in the United States confirm retreatment increases the total volume of waste. The 54 tonnes of plutonium stored at La Hague could provide the ingredients for a nuclear bomb should terrorists secure same. La Hague is currently filled to 93% of storage capacity and will reach full capacity by 2030. This is what the next generation is faced with.

France and Russia are retreating and recycling nuclear fuel. Japan, after the accident at Fukushima, find they have large stocks of plutonium which concerns the Atomic Energy Agency and the United States. in Germany, Belgium and Switzerland the end of their nuclear programmes means an end to recycling. The decommissioned Sellafield plant is a very costly dismantlement with interminable costs. China, the most dynamic builder of reactors is also very trenchant in negotiations. The United States do not recycle in order to avoid the proliferation of plutonium.

Source: Seul 1% du combustible nucléaire recyclé, Le Monde, Vendredi, Avril 26, 2019


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