Remember Freedom Fries? At the start of the Iraq War everything French was banished because those pesky French weren't with us on our invasion to root out Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, our leaders were secretly closing deals with the French government, paving the way for a massive French nuclear invasion. With huge corporate profits at stake, politicians now insist that the French do nuclear power right, even if they shouldn't be frying potatoes or making decent wine. Plans are in place to have the French reprocess our nuclear waste, install French reactors and enrich uranium. All of this is a dangerous fantasy.
At the start of the Iraq war, "true patriots" were asked to order "freedom fries" and smash their best Bordeaux to send a message to the French government about their dastardly opposition to our invasion of Iraq. Meanwhile, those issuing the orders were privately cooking up a series of deals that would send billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to France.
Those deals, made with the French nuclear corporation – Areva –an almost wholly owned subsidiary of the French government – include a new uranium enrichment plant for Idaho and seven French reactors for six U.S. nuclear sites. The reactor got a name change when it was exported to the U.S. and is known here as the "Evolutionary Power Reactor." Everywhere else its foreign roots are exposed by its original name – "European Pressurized Reactor."
The French export deals constitute not only a huge money grab for the French nuclear industry but bank on the confidence of the American people to believe the propaganda trotted out by our own politicians, that while French fries and champagne should be forsworn, the French can deliver nuclear power par excellence.
We are told that the French get 80% of their electricity from nuclear power. This is true. We are also told that the French have "solved" their radioactive waste problem by "recycling" it. This is abject nonsense. We are further told that this "all nuclear eggs in one basket" approach has been a Godsend for the French economy and the environment. Not true. And finally, French nuclear power, like nuclear power everywhere, is marketed by its proponents as a "clean," "safe" and even, most outrageously, "renewable" energy source.
The heavy reliance on nuclear energy in France has resulted in enormous quantities of both high-level and the misnamed "low-level" radioactive waste. France does not have a repository and recently, in a highly controversial move, solicited 3,511 communities to take the low-level waste and bury it in their communities, promoting it as a boon for economic development. The waste agency refused to name the communities that had expressed interest in housing the waste, in large part because the agreements had in fact been struck, not with the communities themselves, but privately with the mayors.
The high-level waste is mainly at the La Hague reprocessing site on the Normandy coast. Reprocessing is a chemical process whereby irradiated reactor fuel is soaked in acid to extract plutonium and slightly enriched uranium. Reprocessing reduces the levels of radioactivity in the waste but creates larger volumes of waste, much of which is discharged into the air and sea (in the case of La Hague, the English Channel.) The nuclear waste pumped into the sea has been measured at 17 million times more radioactive than normal sea water by an independent French laboratory. The aerial discharges include krypton-85 (found to register 90,000 times higher than natural radiation levels) and carbon-14, recognized by the French Nuclear Safety Center as the most dangerous radioactive isotope for human health.
The "recycled" waste in the sea has traveled all the way to the Arctic Circle and has caused the closing of beaches and fishing areas around the La Hague plant dues to excessive levels of radioactive contamination. Two medical studies have also found elevated rates of leukemia in communities close to La Hague.
Thanks to nuclear "recycling," France has at least 81 tons of plutonium sitting at La Hague (about 30 tons of this is foreign waste that France agreed to reprocess but never returned to the country of origin). Plutonium is of course the trigger in a nuclear bomb. Much of the solid wastescreated by reprocessing itself are also so contaminated with plutonium that they cannot be re-used as fuel (the purpose behind reprocessing in the first place is to "recycle" the used fuel back into the reactors.) Therefore, the plutonium-contaminated wastes will need to go to the repository that France to date does not have (it has identified a site where exploration has begun, but the project continues to face heavy opposition).
When we are told that France recycles its waste, this is what they are talking about.
Such a heavy reliance on nuclear power may have seemed like a good idea at the time to some. But under today’s climate conditions, as global warming wreaks havoc on the weather, water-guzzling thermo-electric plants like nuclear power stations have proven to be a costly liability.
During the European heat wave of 2003, France was forced to import electricity after 17 of its reactors had to power down or shut down altogether. Drought caused lakes and rivers to drop below levels that allowed reactors to operate safely. Higher water temperatureshampered the plants’ intake systems that rely on water for cooling. In 2006, when heat wave conditions again forced similar measures, the French government allowed nuclear plants to discharge their cooling water – which emerges already at higher than ambient temperatures – even hotter. The discharge of hot water into lakes, rivers and even the ocean has been shown to cause serious disruption to the aquatic ecosystems near the plant.
The 58 French reactors in operation – and the proposed new EPR which is under construction in France and Finland – have not enjoyed a happy history. First, 54 of the reactors are not even French, but the American Westinghouse design. Only a handful can use the plutonium fuel (also known as MOX or mixed-oxide fuel) manufactured as a result of reprocessing and since all reactors produce plutonium along with other fission products during operation, there is virtually no net reduction of plutonium waste. So much for "recycling."
When reprocessing began, the French were counting on the success of their "breeder" reactor program to serve as the cornerstone of their nuclear power program. Instead, the breeder program was a costly failure, its most spectacular flop coming from the grandly named SuperPhenixwhich operated 12 years and produced just 8.2 TWh of electricity. The financial failure of France’s plutonium economy has been so profound that even the government itself, in a 2000 study, admitted that reprocessing and plutonium fuel production raised the cost of electricity and gouged French taxpayers to the tune of tens of billions of francs.
Despite this, French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, continues to travel the world serving, as the Washington Postdeclared, as "the world’s most aggressive salesman for nuclear power." The jewel in his nuclear portfolio is the EPR, advertised as safe, clean and green. But the EPR is so troubled that it hasn’t even gotten off the launch pad without major – and costly – setbacks. At the construction sites in both France and Finland, errors in the concrete foundation that were recognized as potential safety hazards, forced stoppages, delays and necessary repairs. The Finnish EPR is now at least 50% over its original $4 billion budget estimate and more than two years behind schedule. The French EPR site was shut down by the French nuclear safety authority for much of the summer and the expected completion timetable is now under dispute.
Meanwhile, the EPR is supposed prove it can withstand an aircraft impact in order to be licensed in the U.S. (although the lapdog U.S. regulatory agency – the Nuclear Regulatory Commission – will doubtless open a loophole somewhere through which the EPR can slip.) Demonstrating resilience to aircraft will be problematic. In 2006, a confidential safety reportby the French nuclear utility – Électricité de France –was leaked to the pubic. The document contained evidence that the EPR could not withstand a 9/11 style assault from the air.
The back story on nuclear France also contains a long and sorry history of secrecy, leaks, spills and accidents – all of which hit the headlines most spectacularly this summer as one leak after another at French nuclear sites made news. Even the French wine makers got nervous. Around the Tricsatin nuclear site that leaked so prodigiously this summer, wine makers changed the labels to hide the Tricastin name from consumers. All of this can be found on the French Connection page of the Beyond NuclearWeb site. The Fact Sheet posted there contains end noted references to everything in this article.
Of course, none of this is ever mentioned by the U.S. politicians who tout the French nuclear industry as the model to follow at home. The fact that the French have left a trail of radioactive contamination around the world – from their uranium mining operations through to waste management – is just too inconvenient a reality to talk about.