The Legacy of Nuclear Waste and its future in France and the United States

The pressure to move away from fossil fuels in power generation has intensified as policy-makers seek to curb carbon emissions in fighting against the pernicious impacts of climate change. With renewable technologies like wind or solar yet to gain full momentum, a door for potential energy alternatives like nuclear energy to be reintroduced in the public sphere opens. Nuclear energy has long sparked the attention of the environmental community scrambling for attractive options for its promise of greenhouse-gas-free electricity production. A myriad of setbacks, however, prevents the nuclear industry from developing as the largest source to supply electricity on a global scale: major accidents, expensive costs, nuclear proliferation scares (Iran Deal, anybody?), and cumbersome regulations. These objections aside, the Achilles Heel for nuclear power taking hold in America has been the unresolved issue of radioactive waste storage.

Today, nuclear power accounts for twenty percent of America’s electricity and generates 70,000 tons of nuclear waste a year. A permanent facility for long-term storage of nuclear waste products that may be dangerous for thousands of years currently doesn’t exist. A country like France, on the other hand, has 80 percent of its electricity generation coming from nuclear power and produces 1,300 tons of nuclear waste per year. Right now, France is the second largest renewable energy producer. While France reprocesses high-level waste such as spent fuel rods to separate plutonium and uranium from other nuclear waste contained, America keeps its used spent fuel sitting inside the confines of nuclear power plants in large pools of water for cooling until it is able to be relocated to a secure repository that’s government approved. A problem presents itself: no such underground central repository exists. In fact, no nation in the world currently has a permanent storage site for its nuclear waste, except Finland who is in the construction phase.

Nuclear waste in the United States may become extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels and unpredictable storms spurred by climate change. Until the United States can address this dire problem of handling lethal material at hand, there can be no positive trajectory for the nuclear power option to follow. Examining the vastly different nuclear waste management policies both nations have can shed some light on their historical relationships with nuclear energy and what causes the gulf between them. Should the United States follow the French model by diversifying its nuclear waste disposal option and expanding its nuclear energy capacities? How are both tackling, or likewise, avoiding the problem of mitigating waste?

It’s important to note how reprocessing works. Using breeder reactor technology in its reprocessing plants, the French burn waste into new fuel through a closed nuclear fuel cycle. That involves converting plutonium and uranium, designated as “spent fuel” coming from fuel rods that are no longer usable, into a “mixed oxide” that can be reused in nuclear power plants to produce more electricity. Such mixed oxide performs as an alternative to enriched uranium by combining the separated byproducts with fresh uranium.

Nonetheless, separated waste remains from reprocessing the used fuel, but the residual waste is now made in a more suitable form for long-term storage. The French “vitrify” this waste by melting it with glass and placing it in heavy stainless steel cylinders, to be stored for eventual disposal deep underground. 17 percent of the electricity is generated from these recycled fuel rods. In France, spent fuel from that country’s 58 nuclear power plants is shipped to the La Hague recycling facility by the English channel, where it is cooled in demineralized water pools for three years. Only then is it separated for recycling into mixed-oxide fuel.

In the United States, spent fuel is simply considered a waste, though more than 90 percent of the energy in spent nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors can be used for reprocessing. Reprocessing yields a variety of pros from reducing the volume of highly radioactive waste, less construction of repositories, and a consistent uranium supply. There are several disadvantages to consider as well. 100 million liters of liquid waste made from French reprocessing is discharged into the English channel, polluting the ocean with toxic effects.

The United States abandoned a reprocessing policy in the 1970s over concerns of fissile material. India had presented itself as a capable nuclear weapon state by using plutonium separated from reprocessed civilian nuclear reactor fuel. As a result, former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in their administrations put a stop to it in the United States. The ban was later overturned, but the United States continues to not reprocess. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan had brought up the idea of supporting reprocessing if and only if paid for by the utilities. The utilities were not interested in pursuing the condition. With nuclear war uncertainties pervading the global stage, making it harder to obtain plutonium and build a nuclear weapon may poise itself as the moral decision for the planet.

Furthermore, it’s also more than worth mentioning one of the rare places in the United States where reprocessing had existed. The now decommissioned Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, used for the Manhattan Project during the Cold War, culminated in one of the most costly cleanups still going on and contaminated spots in the world. $50 billion was allocated for the environmental disaster that was the result of leaks.

One of the main reasons the French are intimately familiar with nuclear power is their long tradition of churning out prominent nuclear scientists that dates all the way back to the start of the twentieth century. Henri Becquerel pioneered the future of nuclear power with his discovery of natural radioactivity, expanded upon by physicist Marie Curie. During World War II while under German occupation, the French were instrumental in helping the Allied powers with nuclear weapon research and development. When the war was over, notable Nobel Prize-winning physicists like Frederic Joliot-Curie returned to a physically and psychologically devastated Paris at the National Centre for Scientific Research. Consequently, the French government under Charles de Gaulle in the 1950s sought to revive a national sense of pride for the dispirited French through scientific advancements and economic benefits of nuclear power for civilian use in the long-term despite rising costs.

In the United States, private nuclear development began in 1954 with the establishment of Atomic Energy Commission. American companies expressed ambivalence towards production over risks from accidents, to which Congress responded through the 1957 Price-Anderson Act. This act created a $560 million liability cap for nuclear producers and necessitated manufacturers to have $60 million of insurance. Up until that point, the United States had built more nuclear power plants than any country in the world. Escalating costs and rapid inflation in the oil energy crisis that defined the volatile 1970s’ abruptly stopped further nuclear power plants from being constructed. In addition, the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown accident in Pennsylvania exacerbated public opposition. No nuclear power plant in the United States has been built since then.

Congress established a national policy to solve the problem of nuclear waste disposal in 1982. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act gave the federal government responsibility for the long-term storage of nuclear waste and promised to start accepting waste in 1998. In order for the government to fulfill its obligation, “a process was established for power companies to pay into a fund to cover the taxpayer liability for handling this fuel”. The court ruled that the government is mandated to provide a secure facility for spent nuclear fuel and was carried out with the intention of building a nuclear waste repository deep in Yucca Mountain, a mountaintop of igneous rock located 150 kilometers northwest of Las Vegas.

Under the supervision of the Bureau of Land Management, Yucca Mountain was supposed to hold 70,000 tons of high- level radioactive waste underneath. Fierce opposition against Yucca Mountain prevented it from becoming the designated site for waste disposal after a collection of state governments planned to take legal action to reverse the decision entirely, arguing that it is not a suitable choice as a location. Nevadans objected to the integrity of Yucca Mountain on the grounds that massive contamination could have drastic consequences. The facility presided adjacent to the Nevada Test Site, which was used to conduct numerous nuclear weapon tests above and below ground. Identified tectonic issues in which there was a probability that either an earthquake or a volcano eruption from water intrusion would occur also sparked outrage (BrunnengraÌber 268).

The vast majority of high-level waste would be transported by rail but would be taken through by truck along a route of populated areas. There was also a chance of increased accidents because of the long transportation routes from distant facilities. As gridlock continues to halt solutions to a standstill, legal fees rise substantially to more than 375 million dollars. Now, with no consensus on a central repository, spent nuclear fuel generated in the United States is disposed directly from reactors and stored at or near one of the 121 facilities across the country. Before getting shipped to permanent storage, the waste sits in these pools within the nuclear plants for at least five years. The Obama administration in 2009 vehemently opposed dumping waste in Yucca Mountain by cutting funding and recalled the license application to build it in 2010. This position has been challenged by President Trump, who supports reintroducing Yucca Mountain as a viable option and requested $120 million in the 2019 budget.

In France, the government has complete control over the nuclear energy industry. In 1955, three centralized government organizations shaped the nuclear umbrella in France: Electricité de France (EDF), Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique (CEA), and Production d'Electricite d'Origine Nucleaire (PEON). CEA first brought the issue of waste management to light upon the formation of The National Radioactive Waste Management Agency (ANDRA) in 1979 (Sovacool 85). ANDRA became an autonomous state-owned organization in December 1991 as part of an important law known as “Bataille’s law,” which required the establishment of research laboratories for nuclear waste sites and the exploration of storage reduction methods. Bataille’s law, which enabled ANDRA to play a role in designing disposal facilities and detecting radioactive waste, had three central tenets: “Research on partitioning and transmutation; evaluation of retrievable versus non-retrievable options for disposal in the deep underground; and studies on conditioning of waste and long-term aboveground storage.”

Currently, attitudes toward nuclear energy are changing in France as it forced to confront a political nightmare in its own version of Yucca Mountain. In Bure, a village in France, the government built a site in 2000 as mandated by Bataille’s law for an underground research laboratory that invested in geological disposal research. Construction was set to start in 2022 and be finished by 2030. Bure would host the final disposal facility for France’s hazardous waste and become one of the most expensive industrial projects in Europe. With a cost tag of 31 billion euros, it would also be the world's first permanent nuclear waste site. Construction of the installation would bury 85,000 cubic meters of highly radioactive waste in a bed of clay 500 meters underground. Yet, people in the village have held massive protests against the action, clashing with police in violent demonstrations. They voice their anxiety over possible contamination and how to communicate the dangers of the waste to future generations.

It seems as though nuclear power will not have a sustainable outlook in the fight against climate change as the dangers outweigh the rewards. Whether or not it is harnessed as an energy source, a long-term solution for the ensuing nuclear waste crisis urgently needs to be addressed for posterity’s sake. The United States does not reprocess its nuclear fuel like France nor does it have a permanent storage facility for its high-level nuclear waste. Although the system in France is not entirely perfect and can be improved upon, its governmental structure allows for its program of geological storage to move forward without political constraints. Reprocessing does not seem to be the end-all-be-all solution for the issues but can be reopened as part of a dialogue for the time being in the status quo situation we find ourselves in. That is if one acknowledges that the legacy of nuclear waste will prove to be unavoidable.





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