The French Nuclear Industry Is Bad Enough in France; Let's Not Expand It to the U.S.

By Linda Gunter, AlterNet - Posted March 23, 2009 "Why can't the Americans be more like the French?" It's the prevailing pro-nuclear refrain, the latest in the nuclear industry's efforts at fictional reinvention.
And until the collapse of his ill-fated and poorly orchestrated presidential run, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was the choirmaster, saying: "If France can produce 80 percent of its electricity with nuclear power, why can't we?"
This clarion call to newfound Francophilia (remember "freedom fries?") is based on a number of false assumptions, the most obvious being that if France gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy, this equates with success.
A poodlish U.S. press corps has largely lapped up the spoon-fed propaganda that everything nuclear French is magnifique, conveniently forgetting its post 9/11 self-flagellation after it meekly buckled to the Bush administration's misjudged bellicosity.
But France's monopolistic dependency on splitting the atom to turn on the lights has come with a huge price -- not only financially but in environmental and health costs. In reality, France is a radioactive mess, additionally burdened with an overwhelming amount of radioactive waste, much of which is simply dispersed into the surrounding environment.
The situation is complicated by the fact that Areva, the French nuclear corporation and biggest atomic operator in the world, is almost wholly owned by the French government. Consequently, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy has gone into high marketing gear -- the Washington Post anointed him "the world's most aggressive nuclear salesman" -- pushing nuclear power to any country willing to pay, most notably in the Middle East.
This proliferation-friendly profiteering, however, ignores an ugly situation at home and in other countries where Areva has left its radioactive footprint.
France has 210 abandoned uranium mines. The leftover radioactive dirt -- known as tailings -- along with radioactively contaminated rocks, have been used in school playgrounds and ski-resort parking lots. Efforts to force Areva to clean up its mess have been met with resistance from the company.
Historically, uranium mining corporations, including those in the U.S., have not been obliged to pay for cleanup. Many sites remain contaminated today, and disused uranium mine sites carry no warning signs. When a French documentary exposing the French uranium mining mess was scheduled to air on national television in February, Areva tried unsuccessfully to block it from the airwaves.
Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon proclaims transparency as one of the hallmarks of her company. But its failed censorship attempt, coupled with the July 2008 cover-up when a major uranium spill at a nuclear processing plant went unreported to the public for 14 hours, belies that assertion.
Areva's subsidiary at Tricastin, the huge nuclear complex where the spill occurred -- contaminating two rivers, kept quiet about the accident and then denied the spill endangered human health. Nevertheless, drinking and bathing in the water was temporarily banned, and Tricastin wine growers have struggled to market their products since the accident.
Three more accidents in the region followed, prompting the French environment minister to order radioactive readings at all 58 operating French reactors.
The dirtiest French nuclear site -- with the cleanest of reputations -- is the vast reprocessing plant at La Hague on the Normandy coast. The nuclear industry has successfully cast reprocessing as "recycling," but nothing about reprocessing could be further from the collections of newspapers and soda cans that recycling conjures in the public's mind's eye.
La Hague takes in irradiated reactor fuel -- domestic and from other countries -- and, through a chemical process, separates the plutonium and uranium for theoretical reuse as new reactor fuel. The plutonium is mixed with uranium to make a fuel known as MOX.
However, fewer than 20 French reactors use MOX fuel, which in turn can handle only minimal proportions of plutonium, and the waste these reactors produce cannot be reprocessed. Since all reactors also produce plutonium during the fission process -- as much as 40 atomic bombs worth per year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council -- the net reduction of plutonium by MOX reactors is virtually zero and contributes nothing to the recycling of waste fuel.
Instead, 80 tons of surplus plutonium remain at La Hague in the equivalent of hundreds of soda-can-size containers. About 30 tons result from imported irradiated fuel from client countries, most of whom have now canceled their reprocessing contracts. This is despite a French law that mandates reprocessed waste fuel be returned to its country of origin.
Most of the uranium isn't "recycled" either. Ninety-five percent of the mass of spent French reactor fuel consists of uranium that is so contaminated with other fission products that it cannot be reused as reactor fuel at all (although France ships some of it to Russia). The vast majority of the uranium from reprocessing -- nonfissile uranium 238 -- cannot be recycled either and will need to be permanently secured.