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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

French Nukes

Air Date: Week of

Despite its typically pro-nuclear stance, the French government has decided to shut down its Superphenix nuclear power plant: the world's largest fast- breeder reactor. The plant has been controversial since its birth, and its troubles aren't over yet. As Sarah Chayes reports, the plant's closure promises to be one of the most costly and difficult shut-down operations ever.


CURWOOD: Nuclear reactors generate about three quarters of France's electricity needs--the largest such percentage of any major industrialized nation. And the French have pressed ahead with nuclear power even after many other nations have cut back their programs. So, it came as something of a surprise when France recently announced it was shutting down the world's largest fast-breeder reactor, called the Superphenix. The controversial facility never lived up to its name. Let alone rising from its ashes, operations at Superphenix barely got off the ground. And as Sarah Chayes reports, the plant's closure promises to be one of the most costly and difficult nuclear shutdowns ever.

CHAYES: Superphenix is a squat cylinder of concrete with yellow trim, plunked down between hamlets in the green valley of the Rhone in east- central France.

(Music plays)

CHAYES: Visitors to the plant are ushered into a plush auditorium to see a film strip.

(Music continues; amplified film narration in French)

CHAYES: The proud voice tells the story of Superphenix, not letting on it's the biggest white elephant France has ever produced: a $10 billion nuclear plant that worked at capacity for only a few months in the decades since it was first switched on, and will cost a billion more dollars to dismantle. The story begins in the early 1970s. It was during the oil crisis when western nations woke up to the problem of energy dependence. The French solution was to turn to nuclear power. It now accounts for three quarters of the country's electricity with only rare public opposition. Superphenix was designed to be especially efficient by using a common variety of uranium that ordinary reactors can't use. It burned some plutonium, too, and produces plutonium fuel as a byproduct.

(Film narration continues)

CHAYES: What the film strip also doesn't mention are the violent anti-nuclear demonstrations during the early phases of construction in 1975. Many protesters came from neighboring countries to the east of France, arguing the plant and its plutonium were an environmental threat to them, too.

(Metal doors slamming closed, footfalls)

CHAYES: A visit inside begins with elaborate security measures.

(A woman speaks in French: "Ca c'est une dosimetre, je vais vous expliquer...")

CHAYES: First, you're given a dose meter, a mini-Geiger counter you clip into your pocket. Then, you dress up.

(Footfalls and a woman speaking in French: "Donc, la on va s'habiller...")

CHAYES: A helmet, a cotton doctor's coat, disposable cotton gloves and overshoes. They'll be treated as nuclear waste. Caution is key here.
Among government officials, too, these days, when it comes to Superphenix. Repeated requests to the industry ministry met with a refusal even to talk about it. In private, officials admit the plant kept breaking down and damaged the credibility of the nation's entire nuclear industry. Superphenix had a prototype, Phenix, one-fifth as big.
Maybe we missed an intermediary step, they say.

(Mechanical sounds)

CHAYES: An elevator takes you up to a circular metal walkway. A forest of brightly-painted tubes and pipes spreads out before you. The radioactive core is below, under three yards of reinforced concrete.

(Ventilator noise)

CHAYES: Piercing the walkway vertically at regular intervals are dark blue tubular machines.

(WOMAN: "Ce que l'on voit, c'est le moteur auxiliare, principale d'une pompe primaire. C'est-a-dire, ce qui va faire circuler le sodium...")

CHAYES: They are the motors of the primary sodium pumps. That's another special feature of fast neutron reactors like Superphenix. The heat from the nuclear reaction is transferred not to water, as in traditional plants, but to liquid sodium. The problem is, if liquid sodium touches air, it catches fire. If it touches water, it explodes. Superphenix was shut down for four full years after a sodium fire in 1990. Aside from such technical problems, France's energy situation has also changed since the '70’s. The national electric company is actually producing too much current because conservation measures slowed down the energy demand. Oil is cheap, for now. And uranium turns out to be plentiful, admits Superphenix director Bernard Magnon.

MAGNON: ["Les raisons du choix de creer Creys-Malville..."] TRANSLATOR: The reasons for creating Superphenix are no longer valid.
We were afraid uranium would get very expensive, and that hasn't been the case. Perhaps we moved too fast. Still, everyone agrees this type of reactor will be interesting and useful some day in the future.

CHAYES: In fact, technological or economic considerations are not what prompted the decision to close Superphenix. It was a political commitment. France's tiny Green Party made it an inviolable condition for joining the Left coalition that won last year's parliamentary elections. Green National Secretary Jean-Luc Benhamias is clear about his party's motivation.

BENHAMIAS: ["Comme nous voulons de toute facon que la France..."] TRANSLATOR: Since we want France to abandon the nuclear option in 10, 12, 15, or 20 years, fast-neutron generation has to be stopped.

CHAYES: With 56 reactors around the country and 2 under construction, it's hard to imagine France giving up nuclear energy entirely. And Superphenix's predecessor, Phenix, has just been allowed to restart after being idle for 2 years. Still, the efforts of the Green Party and other activists have begun to crack the wall of silence that has always surrounded France's nuclear choices. A policy debate has timidly begun.

(Ventilator sound; woman: "Elles sont terminees, ces machines de transfer, par trois droits, comme une pince a sucre.")

CHAYES: Danielle Perotto, who's been taking visitors through Superphenix for 15 years, now adds an explanation on how the plant will be dismantled. What looks like 2 gray stand-pipes contain pincer-like machines that will reach down and grab the fuel rods and load them onto a pivoting ramp. They'll be deposited in a container to get the sodium off, then stored in water. This process will begin next year. In the meantime, the sodium bathing the reactor core has to be kept liquid. That means the pumps have to keep turning to keep it hot. That means the plant, even though it's turned off, has to buy electricity. The regiments of pylons marching across the valley with their thick cables now buzz with current going into Superphenix, not out of it.

(Perotto speaks in French)

CHAYES: Danielle Perotto points out that all French nuclear facilities have basic shutdown plans written for them when they're built. But the details are usually worked out beginning 5 or 6 years before the plant is actually retired. Super Phoenix managers are expected to complete these studies in only 2 years, but worse, to Perotto, is that there's a whole unused core in stock.

PEROTTO: [Speaks in French: "Il est neuf, on l'a achete, il est neuf..."]

CHAYES: "It's a new one. We bought it; it's new," she says. Price tag: $200 million. Energy value: 24 billion kilowatt hours. It's going to be reprocessed, just like spent fuel. No country has ever done that before.

(Milling voices)

CHAYES: In the nearby stone and blue slate village of Morestel, the mayor recently called a gathering and a minute of silence to mark the plant's passing. Most villagers now know the decision is irreversible. Only a few dozen came to the ceremony.

THE MAYOR: [Speaks in French]

CHAYES: Still, they and their mayor are traumatized by the likely economic impact of the closure. The shutdown means that over the next several years, 700 electricity company employees and their families will be relocated, not to mention subcontractors.

THE MAYOR: ["La centrale fonctionnait tres bien..."]

CHAYES: Besides, says the mayor, it's not true Superphenix didn't work. It generated enough electricity to break even in 1996.

(Loud motors)

CHAYES: But though the decision to halt these motors is meant to be symbolic, shutting Superphenix down is not likely to signal the speedy end of nuclear energy in France. For Living on Earth, I'm Sarah Chayes in Creys-Malville.



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