For years now I’ve heard how France stores all its nuclear waste in a single room at La Hague. It never quite believed it but now I do now. Two weeks ago, I got to stand in that room.
What they say about France is true: the country has mastered nuclear technology. It has the lowest greenhouse emissions of any industrial nation while importing only half as much natural gas from Russia as either Britain or Germany. There are even signs around Paris directing you to stations where you can recharge your electric car. It’s time Britons took note of these things. There’s going to be no way to deal with global warming or the looming oil shortage without nuclear energy.
France’s nuclear reprocessing centre sits on a promontory overlooking the English Channel. Here, spent fuel assemblies arrive from France’s 59 reactors plus a few others in Belgium and other countries.
These assemblies are dangerous, of that there is no doubt. There’s nothing more radioactive on earth and possibly in the solar system. But plenty of other dangerous industrial materials are handled in the same way. You just have to plan and be vigilant.
Half-an-hour after arriving at the complex, after going through elaborate security procedures, we found ourselves standing in front of a 2ft-thick window looking into the initial processing room. Sure enough, there was a 20ft nuclear fuel assembly rising through the floor like some sinister benthic organism being hauled from the deep. With its long vertical lines of black and white, the assemblies looked eerily like a model of the World Trade Center.
“Why is the glass so yellow?” I asked.
“It’s lined with lead for radiation protection,” said our guide.
“What’s the radiation coming out of that thing?”
“About 1,000 rems,” he replied.
Quick calculation. 1,000 “radiation equivalents for man”, as the nomenclature goes. That’s about twice the radiation you would get standing at ground zero in Hiroshima.
“What happens if something goes wrong in there?” I ask.
“You can manipulate things with these,” says the guide, showing me a pair of handles on either side of the glass that operate two long arms that reach across the room. There are six of these, so the arms can reach anywhere. “No one has been in there since it was completed,” he says. “You’d be killed instantly.”
After the rods have cooled a bit, they are stored in an Olympic-sized storage pool next door. Along the railing – incongruously – are a series of life preservers.
“Anybody ever fall in?” I ask.
“No, but just in case.”
“Would you be harmed if you did?”
“A couple of feet of water block all the radiation,” he says. “But you wouldn’t want to dive down to the bottom.”
The fuel rods remain in the water anywhere from five to 15 years.
At that point, the recycling begins. A spent fuel rod is a collection of potentially valuable radioactive isotopes embedded in a filler of uranium. Ninety-five per cent of a spent fuel rod is uranium-238, the relatively benign isotope that is only mildly radioactive. It could be put right back into the ground without doing any harm. Another 1 per cent is the fissionable uranium-235, which does the actual work.
U-235 constitutes only 0.7 per cent of natural uranium. In order to make a bomb, it must be enriched to 90 per cent. For a nuclear power plant, you only need to enrich it to 3 per cent – which is why a nuclear plant can’t blow up like a bomb.
By the time the fuel rod has been in the reactor for three years, the U-235 is back down to 1 per cent. That can be extracted and enriched again for more fuel. The same holds true of the plutonium, an artificial element formed in reactors that comprises another 1 per cent. At its Melox facility in Avignon, the French combine spent uranium and plutonium to form a mixed-oxide fuel, which can also be burned into reactors.
By now we’re down to the last 3 per cent of the fuel rod. These are very highly radioactive isotopes, which might have some industrial or medical use. This is the material stored beneath the floor at La Hague. It is first vitrified – dissolved in glass that will last for thousands of years. Then it is encased in steel and lowered into manholes in the floor.
The French decided to go nuclear in the late 1950s under Charles de Gaulle. They foresaw energy problems long before the Arab oil boycott awakened the rest of the world. They had a slogan: “We may not have any oil, but we have ideas.” By contrast, Britain’s attitude has been: “We may not have any ideas, but we’ve got plenty of North Sea oil.” That has proved to be a losing hand.
This French gamble has paid off handsomely. Nuclear electricity is now the country’s third biggest export, producing £35bn a year. The Germans have promised to close down their reactors by 2020, but nobody believes that any more. Italy, which now imports 80 per cent of its electricity, just announced plans to build its own reactors. This prompted Greenpeace to call the decision “a declaration of war”.
Still unaware of the French success, Britain is fretting that a nuclear revival will create an “unmanageable problem of nuclear waste”. Secretary of State John Hutton has proposed paying communities to accept repositories.
James Lovelock, Britain’s outstanding environmentalist and the originator of the “Gaia hypothesis”, has a better idea. He has volunteered to bury his quantity of nuclear waste in his own back yard. “It would occupy about one cubic metre and would provide energy to heat my home,” he says. The main byproduct of nuclear waste, after all, is heat.
In fact, Hutton’s suggestion may open up even more interesting possibilities. Why not turn a nuclear-waste repository into a tourist attraction? Britain’s Nuclear Waste Tourism Centre could attract visitors from all over the world, who would marvel at how we have spent so many years foolishly ignoring this powerful and benign source of energy.