U.S. Blue Ribbon nuclear commission should visit France

There’s nothing like actually seeing processes you have up to then only read or heard about. The mythical suddenly becomes real, and more normal and innocuous. Two weeks ago, I toured Areva’s MELOX plant near Avignon. MELOX makes new fuel from recycled plutonium. A couple days later, I visited the La Hague plant in Normandy, where plutonium is extracted from used nuclear fuel. The two facilities embody a course of action the U.S. could take to deal with its inventory of used nuclear fuel. Members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future should visit these places, and see with their own eyes how France manages its nuclear fuel cycle. 

The Blue Ribbon Commission recently formed three subcommittees, to look at American fuel cycle alternatives, transportation and storage of used fuel, and waste disposal. Of all the countries on the planet, France is the most active in all three areas. And since French nuclear reactors are similar in design to two-thirds of the U.S. fleet, it’s not a stretch to say the French solution could be applied almost directly to the U.S. inventory of used fuel.

The fuel manufactured at MELOX is mixed oxide (MOX), ideal for burning in pressurized light water reactors. (MELOX is a syllable acronym of the French mélange oxide.) U.S. civilian reactors will soon be burning MOX, though not made from plutonium recycled at facilities like La Hague. The first MOX fuel assemblies to fuel power reactors will be made from military plutonium. This is how the U.S. will fulfil its part of an anti-proliferation agreement with Russia, through which each country will destroy 34 metric tons of plutonium that used to be on weapons. The military-origin MOX fuel will be made at the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility at Savannah River, SC, which is being built by Shaw Areva MOX Services LLC.

The process to recycle plutonium from the civilian reactor fleet, on the other hand, would be similar to that used at La Hague today. But instead of PUREX, a process that extracts plutonium and uranium in separate streams, a U.S. version of La Hague would use COEX, a proprietary Areva process in which plutonium and uranium are extracted together, thereby making it more difficult to isolate plutonium than if PUREX were used. For a description of fuel recycling today, click here.

The Blue Ribbon members will have to decide for themselves whether COEX is superior to PUREX as a barrier to proliferation. (Personally I think the issue is nearly irrelevant; see article.) But the members should visit La Hague and MELOX, which are at opposite ends of France, as well as some of the reactor sites from and to which used and recycled fuel are shipped. This will give the members a real-time view of how France handles the issues of fuel recycling, transport, storage, and disposal.

Such an information-gathering tour should also include visits to some of Areva’s customers elsewhere in Europe—e.g., Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium—just to see with their own eyes how international fuel recycling arrangements work. 

When I was at La Hague, I stood right in front of a used fuel shipping canister. At one point I reached out and touched the thing. A few minutes later I and my companions—a group of U.S. nuclear experts on an Areva-sponsored tour—peered through a radiation-proof window at fuel assemblies being remotely manipulated; see article. And a little while after that we stood on the deck of a pool of water that contained thousands of tons of used fuel assemblies.

I survived the experience, well enough to participate in the Ottawa Dragonboat Festival last weekend. (I’m the Paddle Demon standing behind Sara Clark; if you look carefully, you can just see the top of my baseball cap.) Though my team finished fourth out of eight in our class, I felt healthy enough to paddle my heart out in our five races—some eight minutes of all-out mayhem.

My companions—Jarret Adams of Areva, Rod Adams of Atomic Insights, Meredith Angwin of Yes Vermont Yankee, Gwyneth Cravens, who wrote Power to Save the World, and Jack Gamble of Nuclear Fissionary—appear to have also survived in good health and spirit. So much for anti-nuclear scaremongering about “nuclear waste.”

Most important, I saw, with my own eyes, an actual, proven way to recycle nuclear fuel.

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