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

Areva, France's nuclear industry, has a solid reputation, but a trail of radioactive waste and deaths in Africa follow its wake.

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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.

Furthermore, reprocessing creates huge volumes of liquid radioactive waste and radioactive gases. These are simply dispersed into the sea and air.

As much as 100 million gallons of liquid radioactive waste a year is pumped from La Hague into the English Channel and has radioactively contaminated the seas as far as the Arctic Circle. These liquid wastes have been measured at 17 million times more radioactive than normal sea water according to an analysis by a French laboratory at the University of Breme.

In 1998, a Belgian laboratory at the University of Gent measured the aerial discharges from La Hague. The lab found they contained radioactive krypton-85 at 90,000 times higher values than natural levels. Krypton gas released from La Hague has been traced across the globe.

Illness clusters

Two independent medical studies have found high rates of leukemia in communities close to La Hague. Beaches, fishing and swimming areas have been closed due to concerns about radioactive contamination of the sea water. Exposure to radiation is generally considered one of the four most likely causes of leukemia (along with exposure to chemicals, viruses and genetics).

Far from recycling radioactive waste, the French face the same dilemma as everyone else: they don't know what to do with it. France has no scientifically accepted or operating high-level radioactive waste repository. The sole site identified to date -- at Bure close to the Champagne region in eastern France -- has been met with organized opposition and has encountered technical difficulties.

France has so much radioactive waste that the government recently approached 3,511 communities suggesting they become home to the so-called low-level radioactive wastes that have nowhere to go. ANDRA, the French national agency responsible for the disposal of nuclear waste, billed the dump project as a boon to local development but refused to publicly identify the handful of communities it says responded positively to the idea of hosting the country's nuclear detritus.

In fact, there is no French love affair with nuclear energy, but rather a deep mistrust of this most secretive of industries. Some of this suspicion dates to the Chernobyl accident in 1986, when a French government spokesman assured the population that the radioactive cloud from the Ukrainian reactor explosion (which eventually dispersed across the globe) had stopped at the French border. Unlike other Western European countries, France mandated no precautionary actions. Consequently, there are numerous hot spots, particularly in eastern France, where radioactive fallout was extremely high.

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