President Macron sees nuclear power as a key part of the energy mix to tackle climate change. Plans are well under way to bury France’s nuclear waste deep underground but, with the long-term dangers and the government’s heavy-handed response to protests, opposition is growing.
The lift took six minutes to reach the ANDRA (France’s National Radioactive Waste Management Agency) laboratory, 490m below ground ‘and 130m below sea level’, according to its spokesperson Audrey Guillemenet. The wide, semi-cylindrical tunnels were empty, apart from a few people in hard hats operating heavy machinery: ANDRA isn’t yet storing anything, but it is studying the potential risks of its controversial Industrial Centre for Geological Disposal (Cigéo) near Bure, in the Meuse department — ‘if it’s approved,’ say the agency’s directors. This caution looks increasingly like a formality: the project has been in the making since the 1990s, received legal approval in 2006, and was declared as being of public interest last November.
This year, ANDRA will seek permission to go ahead from France’s Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), which is expected to make its decision in three to five years. Though the ASN has expressed reservations in the past about some technical aspects of Cigéo, it considers deep underground storage the best solution for nuclear waste. The European Commission will also have to approve the project (1), but declared on 2 February that nuclear power generation is in accordance with the EU’s target of carbon neutrality by 2050, as long as it meets safety requirements (2).
People I met at ANDRA in January were clearly pleased that Sweden’s Social-Democratic government (the Greens having left the coalition) had just approved plans to bury part of the country’s nuclear waste in a layer of granite 500m below ground. Finland’s government approved a similar project last November.
Nuclear waste has been under the spotlight again since President Macron announced France would build 14 new EPRs (European Pressurised Reactors) by 2050, and praised the small modular reactor technology on which French scientists are working.
Plans for new nuclear power generation assume problems on existing EPR sites can be overcome.This creates uncertainty over France's ability to build reactors in a reasonable time frame and at a reasonable cost
France's Court of Audit
But France’s Court of Audit notes that ‘plans to build new nuclear power generation capacity on a large scale assume that problems encountered on existing EPR construction sites can be overcome. This creates uncertainty over France’s ability to build new reactors in a reasonable time frame and at a reasonable cost’ (3). France and Finland have both experienced substantial delays and cost overruns. Finland’s Olkiluoto reactor is due to start full-scale production in July, over 12 years late, while the commissioning of France’s Flamanville reactor has been put back to mid-2023; the original bill has tripled for both.
Cigéo is intended to hold 83,000 cubic metres of waste, half of which has already been produced by existing power stations; it’s not clear where waste from France’s nuclear deterrent force (missiles, submarine reactors) will be stored. If the project is approved by France’s Environmental and Energy Management Agency (ADEME), Council of State and parliament, and the European Commission, construction should begin in 2025, near the existing laboratory. From around 2035, cylindrical ‘packages’ of radioactive waste from Électricité de France (EDF), the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and Orano (formerly Areva, the company responsible for nuclear fuel) will arrive on special trains. The packages, each containing 50-70kg of waste, will be transported by funicular railway down a 4.2km incline with a 12% gradient, and stored in tunnels 500m below ground; there will be 270km of tunnels in total.
Most dangerous byproducts
Cigéo will store the civil nuclear sector’s most dangerous byproducts, accounting for 3% of total waste but 99% of all radioactivity, according to ANDRA. Uranium fission products degenerate very slowly and emit ionising radiation that is potentially harmful or even lethal to living organisms for thousands of years. Nuclear countries currently store such waste in cooling pools, reprocessing the most dangerous (France does this at La Hague). This form of storage is supposed to be reversible within 100 years if a better solution is found. France’s Environmental Authority doubts it truly is reversible; the StocaMine facility is a case in point (see Alsace’s toxic time bomb, in this issue).
‘This facility won’t be part of the project, but will remain a laboratory,’ Guillemenet told me.At the end of one tunnel, a CEA engineer in protective equipment was studying the behaviour of radionuclides in Callovo-Oxfordian claystone. The engineers say they are taking geomechanics into account: ‘Is what we are seeing a result of the Alps rising, or the Parisian basin sinking, or both? We’ve measured a horizontal stress of 14 megapascals — greater than the vertical stress of the 500m of rock above our heads,’ Guillemenet said. ‘We’ve been able to take this into account when digging the tunnels,’ to avoid them collapsing. The engineers are also testing the strength of the roof supports.
Visits by the public
Thousands of schoolchildren, politicians and journalists visit the site every year, and ANDRA is keen to show it has thought of everything: ‘Between 1991 and 2005,’ Leverd said, ‘we were looking at bringing the packages down a vertical shaft, but then we went with an incline railway because we couldn’t totally eliminate the risk of a lift fall. It will have an electric motor and run on rails rather than tyres, because tyres are flammable.’ In February 2014 a fire that started on a vehicle tyre at an underground military nuclear dump in New Mexico (US) caused a radiation leak into the atmosphere. The tunnels had to be closed off for several years to starve the fire of oxygen.
The Cigéo engineers also need to consider the risk of explosion, as some of the waste to be stored generates hydrogen. The tunnels will have to be ventilated continuously, as the gas can detonate if allowed to build up. Engineer Bertrand Thuillier — who has given evidence before the European Parliament — points out that hydrogen becomes explosive at a concentration of 4%. Leverd said this threshold could only be reached if ventilation stopped for more than two weeks, which would never happen. He also maintained that even if there were an explosion, damage to the packages would be ‘slight’. In 2018 ANDRA ditched plans to store nuclear waste embedded in bitumen, which ASN chairman Pierre-Franck Chevet judged too great a fire risk.
Another potential problem is water infiltration. ‘The original plan was for a vertical shaft, which would present a very low risk of infiltration, but now it’s a funicular, which is a far higher risk,’ said hydrogeologist Romain Virrion, a former director of environment protection federation France Nature Environnement for the Lorraine region. ‘If pumping stops for two weeks, there’ll be 20cm of water in the tunnels — it can’t be ruled out. And that raises long-term operational issues.’ Leverd insisted pumping would never be allowed to stop for two weeks. Virrion also pointed out that the French Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety had identified ‘karstified fractures’ near the site, which could lead to groundwater-surface water exchange.
For 30 years, ANDRA’s arguments have failed to silence critics. ‘I was there from the start,’ said Régine, a Meuse Nature Environnement activist I met in Bar-le-Duc, around 30km from Bure. ‘I organised the first information meeting here in 1994,’ she said. ‘Even then there were people from the security services in the crowd.The population was already dwindling, but they tried to bribe us to agree to the project by offering jobs and money.’ Meuse had a population of 184,500 in 2019, Bar-le-Duc, its prefecture, had only 14,733 in 2018. Bure and neighbouring villages all have fewer than a hundred inhabitants; the local population density is less than ten people per square kilometre. Farmer Jean-Pierre ‘JP’ Simon, a long-term opponent of the project said, ‘They chose the site for sociological, not geological reasons. There’s no one here. You try mobilising 10,000 demonstrators when the biggest town has a population of 15,000!’
A moratorium on more sites
In the 1980s ANDRA’s geologists surveyed sites across France, but popular anger forced Prime Minister Michel Rocard to declare a moratorium in 1990. In 1991 the Bataille Act (after Socialist National Assembly member Christian Bataille) set out three options for long-term waste management: transformation, surface storage and deep underground storage, but the last of these was soon the favourite. Four sites — in the Gard, Vienne, Meuse and Haute-Marne departments — were short-listed, but opposition was fierce and by 1998 only the Bure site remained, near the border between two departments with dwindling populations (Meuse and Haute-Marne) located in two deindustrialised regions (Lorraine and Champagne-Ardennes, which merged with Alsace in 2016 to form the Grand Est administrative region).
The influential Gérard Longuet, a minister in several rightwing governments and president of Lorraine regional council from 1992 to 2004, was an enthusiastic supporter. But Michel Labat, a former village councillor from Mandres-en-Barrois, said, ‘A laboratory sells science, and jobs for highly qualified people. People voted for it, without really understanding what it was...’
The two departments have each received subsidies worth €30m a year, paid through the Groupement d’Intérêt Public fund, which supports projects of public interest. But even this money — which some mayors opposed to Cigéo refuse to apply for — has not slowed the population drain. Three secondary schools in southern Meuse closed in September 2018. Régine said, ‘We have new pavements, but nobody walking on them. The protesters are resigned because the government has always ignored them. Some even believe the waste is already under the ground. But that doesn’t mean they agree with it.’
The protests are now refocusing on facilities around Cigéo. In 2020 Unitech abandoned plans to build a plant in the village of Suzannecourt to clean power station workers’ protective clothing. Residents concerned about waste water management objected, despite the promise of 40 new jobs. In a few years’ time, trains carrying waste — up to six a month — are likely to attract major protests. A resident of Givrauval, a village around 20km from Cigéo, said, ‘Until now, Bure seemed a long way away. But with trains carrying the waste past our front doors, it’s going to feel very real.’
How will the authorities react to the protests? The scale of the repression reflects their determination. Several activists were placed under house arrest during COP21, in December 2015, under emergency powers introduced after the 13 November terrorist attacks. After an unauthorised demonstration and damage to a restaurant near ANDRA’s offices in summer 2017, other activists were charged with criminal conspiracy.
Zone to Defend blockade
When plans to build an airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes (Loire-Atlantique department) were abandoned in January 2018, the prefect of Meuse feared Bure becoming a new focus of the Zone to Defend blockade movement. The Lejuc woods, where ANDRA plans to bore ventilation shafts, have been cleared of activists three times, and are now guarded by gendarmes. ‘JP’ has been taken to court for lending demonstrators a tractor and trailer, which were confiscated for more than 12 months. Phone tapping seems to be widespread — the gendarmes even use an IMSI-catcher eavesdropping device to intercept mobile phone traffic.
According to the Human Rights League of France (LDH), the government ‘is pursuing a campaign to criminalise its opponents’ positions and protests, and this is undermining individual freedoms’. Belgian lawyer Jacques Englebert, commissioned by the LDH to observe a trial at Bar-le-Duc in February 2019 reported that the ‘measures and forces deployed’ would have been better suited to dealing with ‘terrorism or organised crime’ and were out of all proportion to the ‘minor nature of the offences’ and the ‘clearly harmless character of the accused’ (4).
The concept behind Cigéo is being challenged, too. Étienne Davodeau’s graphic novel Le droit du sol: journal d’un vertige (The Soil’s Right: a diary of vertigo; Futuropolis, 2021) tells the story of his 800km walk in summer 2019, from the painted cave at Pech Merle (in the Lot department) to Bure, drawing parallels between them. The Stone Age artists at Pech Merle left us a ‘beautiful legacy’; at Bure, we are burying waste that will remain dangerous for thousands of years. ‘That tells you a lot about our relationship with this planet and its soil,’ Davodeau says. He reveals, for example, that ANDRA tasked specialists in visual communication with finding a way to warn our distant descendants not to dig it up.
ANDRA’s Leverd responded, ‘Well, the waste already exists, and we have to do something with it for the sake of future generations.’ He pointed out that France used to dump waste at sea, notably in the Pacific between 1967 and 1982 (the practice was only banned in 1993). ‘Burying it is safer than storing it at the surface. The risk with surface storage is that our descendants could lose control of the waste, so we need to put it in a safe place.’Bernard Laponche, a former engineer at the CEA’s research centre and now fiercely opposed to the project, sees it differently: Cigéo will ‘impose subsoil pollution on future generations’ and it would be better to store waste just below the surface, ‘until science finds a way to reduce or neutralise its radioactivity’ (5).
Cigéo is gathering momentum. Once the Council of State has given its approval and a ministerial decree has been issued, construction could start in 2025, and storage in 2035. In May 2018 the National Assembly’s commission of inquiry on the safety and security of nuclear facilities heard evidence from Leny Patinaux, a former ANDRA employee (2012-15) turned historian, who talks of Cigéo’s ‘unavoidable uncertainties’ (6): ‘How much risk we are willing to bear depends on the individual. ANDRA is trying to create the safest possible storage conditions. But that doesn’t make the problem simpler in any way. A million years is the kind of time frame that makes it impossible to foresee every eventuality.’
(1) Under article 37 of the EURATOM treaty.
(2) ‘EU Taxonomy Complementary Climate Delegated Act’, preparatory document, 2 February 2022.
(3) ‘Les choix de production électrique: anticiper et maîtriser les risques technologiques, techniques et financiers’ (Power generation choices: anticipating and managing the technological, technical and financial risks), Cour des Comptes, 18 November 2021.
(4) ‘Rapport sur les évènements survenus à Bure et sur leur traitement judiciaire’ (Report on events at Bure and their judicial treatment), Human Rights League of France, 20 June 2019, www.ldh-france.org/.
(5) Le Monde, 28 March 2018.
(6) Leny Patinaux, ‘Enfouir des déchets nucléaires dans un monde conflictuel: Une histoire de la démonstration de sûreté de projets de stockage géologique en France (1982-2013)’ (Burying nuclear waste in a conflictual world: A history of the demonstration of the safety of geological storage projects in France, 1982-2013), doctoral thesis, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris, 2017.