France debates what to do with its nuclear waste

EPA-EFE//PETER STEFFEN

Interior view into the maintenance room for containers with highly radioactive in the interim storage site Gorleben, Germany.

France debates what to do with its nuclear waste


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France launched a national debate on how to treat its 1.6 million cubic meters of nuclear waste as part of the country’s National Plan for the Management of Radioactive Waste takes place under the auspices of Andra, the national agency responsible for its management.

Currently, Cigéo, the €35 billion Industrial Centre for Geological Storage, is being built in Bure, in eastern France, a region with no seismic activity and thick layers of slate that keep water out.

The idea is to create chambers 500 meters below the surface and seal the waste inside galleries. However, the emission of hydrogen from the waste could lead to explosions, so the waste needs to be ventilated, which suggests maintenance work for a few million years.

The question is whether this solution will be able to maintain the waste “safely” for a few million years. Neptunium 237 requires 2,1 million years to be half as dangerous as it is today; iodine 129 will take 16 million years and chlorine 36 merely 300,000 years.

French physicist Bernard Laponche argues for an end to all talk about burying, which is irreversible and, therefore, “the worst of all options,” as the leak of a single container would suffice to spell disaster.

An alternative approach would require authorities to wait for science to create a more efficient solution, with experiments focusing on neutron bombardment to reduce the radioactivity of plutonium. Laponche argues that capital should be diverted from storage to research, to develop a more efficient solution.

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