Explosive inspection at la Hague, the world’s premier nuclear garbage can

Explosive inspection at la Hague, the world’s premier nuclear garbage can
by Jérôme Canard
Le Canard Enchaîné
September 13, 2017

translated from French by Dennis Riches

The operator of the nuclear waste reprocessing center at la Hague has recently been served a shocking message. On July 31, the ASN (Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire) addressed them a six-page letter of citation.

The reason? “A risk of explosion” in one of the plutonium purification facilities, that’s all. No Chernobyl imminent, but a serious danger of a release of radioactive gas nonetheless.

On March 31st., during a surprise inspection, the ASN visited the facility where plutonium is separated from impurities before it can be mixed into MOX fuel (a highly radioactive fuel). The procedure, which releases large quantities of hydrogen into the facility, requires strict control. A unique charm of this gas is that it becomes explosive when it reaches a level of 4% of the air in a confined space.

Unlikely, right? But the letter from the ASN, which Le Canard has in its possession, states “Periodic monitoring of the hydrogen detectors is done insufficiently.” This is not all. When the ASN had the idea to simulate a breakdown of the system designed to release the gas into the atmosphere, the plant operators took one hour and thirty-six minutes to deploy the necessary emergency compressed air canisters.

This is unfortunate considering that in this time the concentration of hydrogen would reach the limit at which it explodes. The delay raised questions. According to the ASN, the delay was due to security controls at the gate which held up the entry of the contractor delivering the canisters.

Not a radiant future

The visit of the ASN to la Hague was not at all fortuitous. For several months, unions had been sending distress signals, denouncing the “neglect of procedures” and the “particularly alarming” state of equipment as well as “repeated” abdications of responsibility in a tense working environment.

In an extremely rare occurrence, the ASN even received in November a copy of an internal document written by workers squarely accusing the directors of Areva at la Hague of breaking down the “system of defense in depth” during an “unrestrained pursuit of cost reductions.” They add, “Preventive maintenance was reduced to the bare minimum while procedures were simplified to the maximum, and training was done hastily because of a lack of personnel.” In all, a real pressure cooker environment.

In addition to the concerns about safety, there is a long list of items on the agenda. With the announcement made by Nicolas Hulot (Minister of the Environment) on July 10th., the future has darkened. To reduce the amount of nuclear-generated electricity to 50% (as stipulated by the Law on Energy Transition) the government foresees the closure of seventeen reactors by 2025. One union member expressed the concern, “Shutting down 1/3 of the nuclear fleet means targeting the oldest ones first, the 900MW reactors that consume MOX. But the sustainability of la Hague depends on making this superfuel composed of plutonium and depleted uranium.” Decoded, this talk means the recycling of used nuclear fuel produces plutonium, and France, being a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, must not increase its stock of civil plutonium. The only way to meet this requirement is to recycle the surplus by making MOX. Yannick Rousselet, head of Greenpeace’s nuclear campaign, says, “If Hulot follows through, it will mean the disappearance of one half of the reactors capable of ingesting MOX, and the loss of one half of orders by EDF (Eléctricité de France) that consumes 135 tons per year. There’s only one solution: sell the surplus to North Korea.

Final Atoms?

Lacking orders for its plutonium, of which there is a 59-ton surplus today, la Hague will have to decrease the quantity of fuel it recycles. It’s bad enough already because the facility operates at only 3/4 of its capacity. Firstly, since Fukushima, the global nuclear industry has declined. Secondly, Germany, which used to be the main client of la Hague, has been closing one reactor after another. Finally, nations which depend on the atom prefer to no longer recycle their fuel. They keep it on their own territory instead.

The remarkable data provided by the nuclear industry itself: of 1,118 tons of fuel reprocessed in Cotentin last year, 1,100 came from the French reactors owned by EDF. The rest? They were for contracts with Italy and the Netherlands.

What is the future of this giant factory that cost billions, employs 4,000 full-time staff and 1,000 contract staff, and produces radioactive materials? What will become of the 30,000 containers of wastes added to the 9,778 tons of used fuel stored in pools awaiting treatment... without counting the MOX that no one, for the time being, knows what to do with, contrary to what was promised by engineers?

La Hague is the largest radioactive reserve on the planet. It’s not a world record to be proud of, is it?

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