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French nuclear waste deep storage project faces new hurdles

28 February 2017

On February 28, a local court annulled the transfer of a forest from a local municipality to the French National Agency for the Management of Radioactive Waste (ANDRA), which is building a geological storage facility for high level nuclear wastes under the forest. The project to build the storage facility - called CIGEO – at Bure in the Meuse department of Eastern France will be suspended until this legal hurdle can be overcome.

Bure underground research facility - Image: ANDRA
Bure underground research facility - Image: ANDRA

This follows the earlier announcement between the Socialist and Green Parties as part of their joint presidential platform that they would end the CIGEO deep burial project, a key part of the long term plans for nuclear waste disposal of all French administrations since well before the 2006 official go-ahead for the project.

Le Monde called the court’s decision to cancel the transfer of ownership of the 220-hectare Lejuc forest a “serious setback” for the project, which envisages a massive facility 500 metres underground to take 85 metric tonnes of high level and long-lived radioactive wastes produced by the French nuclear industry.

These legal difficulties add to the challenge ANDRA faces on the ground, where protesters have been campaigning to have the the €25bn project scrapped. These cumulative problems could jeopardise the timetable for the site’s activation, with final authorisation planned for 2018 and commissioning in 2025.

ANDRA already has an underground research laboratory on the site at Bure, designed to study the geological suitability of the Callovo-Oxfordian clay formations for a deep repository of radioactive waste. In January 2016 one of the tunnels under construction collapsed, killing one person and injuring another.

France is the world’s largest exporter of electricity and the world’s most committed nuclear nation, with 58 reactors producing 75% of the country’s power. As a result, it produces 13 metric tonnes of nuclear waste a year.

Since France’s first nuclear power plant opened in 1956, the country has housed its high-level toxic waste in four short-term national surface facilities at La Hague in Normandy, Marcoule and Cadarache in the south and Valduc, north of Dijon.

This was seen as a stop-gap solution prior to deep disposal, the only solution likely to keep the wastes inaccessible for the 100,000 years and more that it will remain dangerous.

The only operational deep waste site in the world is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in south-east New Mexico, a deep repository for the disposal of US weapons-related radioactive waste, which opened in 1999. This is temporarily closed following an accident in 2014, and is scheduled to reopen later this year.

A site in Finland has already been approved by regulators and in Sweden, Japan and Germany geological sites have been identified, although not confirmed. Nuclear waste authorities in Canada and Britain are looking at possible sites. The eventual location of a US site for civilian nuclear waste is still under discussion.

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