Le Monde, August 2017, Radioactive waste: CIGEO or the chronicle of a failure foretold

Radioactive waste: CIGEO or the chronicle of a failure foretold
translated by Dennis Riches

Translator's note: Yesterday I posted news of the massive police response to those who have been protesting France's nuclear waste burial project. Readers who are unfamiliar with the issue may wonder if these protesters are being unreasonable. After all, don't we need to get moving on a solution to our nuclear waste problem? Burial seems so intuitively logical, right? This report by three eminent scientists explains why the CIGEO project needs to be halted. This is not just a matter of protesters habitually objecting to all things technological. The plan just is not feasible. The report by these scientists makes it clear that the police have struck the wrong target.

In a special MONDE report three scientists plead for the abandonment of the nuclear waste burial project and for research on its management.

LE MONDE August 7, 2017

by Benjamin Dessus (engineer, economist), Bernard Laponche (polytechnicien, scientist) and Bertrand Thuillier (engineer, scientist)

In a special MONDE report three scientists plead for the abandonment of the nuclear waste burial project and for research on its management.

As scientists, it seems useful for us to come back to the topic of CIGEO (Centre Industriel de stockage Géologique) in Bure and to the many questions raised in the report by the IRSN (l’Institut de radioprotection et de sûreté nucléaire) released at the end of June, as well as to the advisory report by the ASN (l’Autorité de sûreté nucléaire) published in early August regarding the security of the installation.
These questions do not concern only major risks when the facility comes into use (fire, explosion). They also cover questions about the effective capacity of the site: 104,000 cubic meters of wastes said to be “in reserve,” 68,500 cubic meters of used fuel not counted, wastes not acceptable in their present form (bituminous materials and wastes labelled “indeterminate” make up 38% of the wastes of medium-level radioactivity). These issues lead to doubts about certain aspects of the way the facility was conceived (the ability to monitor, maintain, recover and seal, etc.). Let’s remember that the application for authorization initially expected in 2015 had already been delayed to 2018 before being put off again to 2019.

Under time constraints and with no oversight

It is shocking that such questions about such an important project still linger just months before this application is to be made. In fact, for certain scientists and the groups expressing their opposition to the project who have been following this situation, these questions are just the consequences of a project that went ahead, influenced by the nuclear industry, without considering any alternative to burial in Bure. They did so under time constraints and without developmental control by the National Commission of Evaluation.
These questions are also what was anticipated by findings that found the project was unrealizable because of a questionable choice to bury the wastes in clay, and from a design conception made too hastily (based on a surface-storage facility).
Let’s return thus to the genesis of this impasse. In 1991, the Bataille Law was the beginning of an intelligent consideration of the fate of long-active high-level and medium-level nuclear wastes. The law envisaged three research paths for managing them: geological storage, surface storage and separation or transmutation of radioactive elements.
But by 1999, there was already no alternative considered. The important support and subsidies went almost entirely to burial, to the detriment of research on the other alternatives. Only one research laboratory was created in Bure, even though the law specified the development of several research sites.

Unstable rocks and the presence of water

In 2005, the time constraint became apparent. The report Argile 2005, produced by research at Bure, mentioned the ability of clay to retain radioelements, but it also characterized the rocks as unstable (which would necessitate the use of thousands of tons of steel). It also mentioned the presence of water (7% to 8%) which would generate thousands of cubic meters of hydrogen due to radiolysis and corrosion.
Only the first finding [about clay being good for containing radioelements] was retained, and so the project was developed too rapidly, and consequently it made inappropriate conclusions from solutions that already existed: surface storage facilities that have natural ventilation and no volume constraints.
In 2006, going along with the momentum and under the influence of the nuclear industry, a law was enacted hastily in order to begin work. But this law took no account of the conclusions of the public debate that was held in 2005-2006. This conclusion proposed a medium-term solution—involving long-duration storage—which would require approval and consent after a long period of observation and research.
In June 2007, the absence of control was verified by the first reports of the National Commission of Evaluation which described operations done with no critical review and no discussion of problems to yet to come.

All that we had predicted was verified

The result is that CIGEO now harbors conceptual and structural errors which were anticipated. The Argile files produced in 2005 and 2009 by ANDRA already described the immense fragility of the geological storage option. In 2012, we denounced the problem of hydrogen that arose from having chosen the clay medium, the failure to account for used fuel, uncertainty about sealing the wastes, the need for continual ventilation, the vulnerability of the shafts and pits to contamination, and the impossibility of removing the waste in case of accident or fire.
All that we warned about has been officially recognized. The laboratory must be and can only be a laboratory as it was described in 1999 to the residents of la Meuse and la Haute-Marne.
          Nonetheless, we are aware that the wastes will not disappear with the disappearance of CIGEO. It is imperative to find another solution. Let’s go back to the spirit and the letter of the conclusions of the public debate in 2005-2006: sub-surface dry storage in order to be able to conduct research on the nature of the wastes, how to sort and classify them, and on their production, without dogmatism, mobilizing the indispensable skepticism and pragmatism needed in the face of such a complex problem.

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