We’re going on a new nuclear tourist adventure for North America! Watch this space for upcoming posts.
If I could only use one word to describe France it would be sophisticated. The country has such a genuine and beautifully nuanced feel. As a culture, the French do not oversimplify. Every detail is important. The architecture is wonderfully complex- the food, the wine, the cheese- everything is created with an almost unimaginable level of care. French culture is truly unique- there is not another place like it in the world.
Perhaps, not surprisingly, the French energy mix is also absolutely unique among its peers. During the oil crisis of the 1970’s many countries were forced to rethink their energy policies and move away from foreign oil consumption. But unlike its neighbors who moved to a mix of nuclear, coal and gas thinking that energy diversity was the best solution- France doubled down on the most sophisticated energy source, ensuring their energy independence and ultimately setting them up to become a nuclear technology exporter. This decision has served them very well.
In addition to generating approximately 80% of their electricity with nuclear energy, there is another aspect to nuclear technology that the French do like no one else: spent nuclear fuel reprocessing. Instead of just pulling spent nuclear fuel out of reactors and storing like we do in the U.S., the French recycle that material and reuse it in the form of Mixed Oxide Fuel and Enriched Uranium Fuel. Reprocessing reduces the amount of waste by a factor of 5 and reduces toxicity by a factor of 10.
This is achieved through a chemical process that involves dissolving the spent nuclear fuel and then separating out the different materials it contains- 96% of which are reusable. The remaining 4%, the small amount of true waste, is mixed into glass, which stabilizes the materials for storage. Additionally the French reprocess spent nuclear fuel for many other countries including: Japan, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Although reprocessing technology was originally developed in the U.S., the French have embraced this process and are now involved in helping the U.S. build a reprocessing facility as a part of a nonproliferation treaty with Russia, and China just announced it is also investing in a reprocessing facility in collaboration with AREVA.
For the final site visit of the European leg of Diary of a Nuclear Tourist I got to visit AREVA’s La Hague, the facility where spent fuel starts its journey to becoming usable fuel again. I was accompanied by the epically fun David Hess from the World Nuclear Association and our gracious host, AREVA’s Katherine Berezowskyj. Like David and myself, Katherine became interested in nuclear energy after realizing that misperceptions of these technologies were inhibiting our collective ability to respond to major challenges like climate change and energy poverty. An American living in Paris, Katherine has really been my sprit guide for navigating much of this trip, so getting to meet her in person was wonderful. I’m guessing the three of us are in the running for most excited tour group to ever enter the facility.
Our journey started at the most beautiful visitor’s center I’ve ever seen, overlooking the Normandy coast. AREVA’s Philippe Mundreuil and Caroline Jourdain greeted us with coffee, cookies and a presentation about the La Hague. Philippe is a Public Relations Officer and helps manage the visitor’s center, and Caroline is the Director of Programs and Customer Relations (got to love seeing women in leadership positions in the nuclear sector!). David and I had lots and lots of questions- about the technology, local politics, and community relations– that Caroline patiently answered one by one. Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned in this presentation is that AREVA has identified a potential cancer treatment, which is currently under going clinical trials. Basically, nuclear reprocessing experts at La Hague “developed an innovative processes to extract212Pb from nuclear materials used in AREVA’s activities.” Let me repeat that: nuclear materials are a potential cancer cure. I just find this to be absolutely astounding! What a shift in the cultural narrative about “nuclear waste”!
After a beautiful lunch, we left the visitor’s center and all headed into the actual reprocessing facility. It’s a really interesting series of building, painted all different colors, which I appreciated! I also really appreciated that they had raised an American flag for me- like I said- the French do not forget the details!! The facility sees about 10,000 visitors per year with participants ranging from politians to school children. After getting through multiple security clearances we arrived at our first stop: a newly received casks of spent nuclear fuel. La Hague receives approximately one of these casks each day. We were able to touch the outside of the cask with our bare hands, which was pretty amazing!
We followed the fuel, so to speak, into the facility where we got to see the hotbox where it is unloaded. At this point David and I kind of lost our minds because it was the first time we had each seen real spent nuclear fuel. When you spend most of your waking hours trying to figure out how to better communicate about nuclear energy, getting to see the material in person is a pretty monumental experience!
Our next stop was the spent fuel pool, where the fuel is stored for anywhere from a few days to a few years before going through chemical reprocessing. The pool is really quite beautiful and peaceful. It’s incredible to think that water is all you need as a protectant from radiation. No special gear- our dosimeters just sat at zero.
We continued to follow the fuel, but had to learn about the chemical and verification processes using models, since these areas are all operated remotely- as in it’s all done with ROBOTS! We did get to see two operators working with one of the remote handling arms and it is such an interesting and specialized skill!
We wrapped up the tour with a walk through of the control room, which is reminiscent of the legendary open office layouts of Pixar and Facebook- except this facility was built decades before. Oh yeah- I haven’t mentioned that AREVA has been reprocessing spent nuclear fuel for more than thirty years- literally since before I was born. So they really have the transport, the process and all of the other potential challenges worked out. Additionally, they are saving their spent MOX fuel as a strategic resource for advanced nuclear reactors- so they are thinking about the future as well.
This visit was a perfect close to a truly life-changing journey. I feel that I have a much better understanding of the global nuclear industry and the ways we can start to solve some of the big challenges facing our modern world. A major “thank you” to Katherine, Philippe and Caroline for providing this incredible site tour!! And thanks to David for being an awesome, super fun travel companion- and to the World Nuclear Association for letting him out of the office for a few days for this adventure! And finally another huge “thank you” to AREVA and Fuel Cycle Week and American Crane for supporting my creative vision and providing the resources I needed to execute this project. I am so grateful for this experience and grateful for having sponsors that value and support this type of innovative personal and professional development! Thanks for caring about the details.
A little more than 4 years ago, I realized that being an artist in the nuclear industry was the career I wanted to pursue. But it didn’t exist! So I slowly started to make imagery, build a website and to file the appropriate documents to start a nonprofit organization while still working as a teacher at the local children’s hospital. Although I quickly connected with many other grassroots nuclear supporters, I felt like my ideas were going largely unnoticed by the industry. But then, in early 2010 I got an email from AREVA asking for design support with their upcoming Earth Day campaign. I was so thrilled! Getting to work with a global nuclear company was literally a dream come true! To this day I am so impressed that they took the risk of working with a young, relatively unknown artist on a National campaign. Incredibly the campaign was a huge success and the experience served as fuel for my creative process- helping me to believe that I really could create my dream job.
So here I am three years later actually doing my dream job (!) and tomorrow, on Earth Day, I will be touring AREVA’s La Hague facility in France. Not only that, but AREVA provided both financial and logistical support for the “Diary of a Nuclear Tourist” project- which has been one of the most valuable experiences of my professional life so far. When I thought up this new approach to nuclear education, AREVA offered another huge gesture of support showing that they care about the arts, communication and education. And looking at the numbers now, I am again amazed at how successful this project has been!
It is tough to express the full extent of my gratitude, but here it goes: To the people of AREVA- thank you so much for appreciating and supporting my creative vision. And for all of the excellent education and outreach that you do every day. Your company is truly a leader in innovative and effective corporate social responsibility.
So, tomorrow is Day 72- and the last stop on the European leg of the “Diary of a Nuclear Tourist” project. To me it seems fitting and even symbolic to spend Earth Day at a facility dedicated to reprocessing nuclear fuel! More to come shortly…
In January of last year, the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) laid out an outline for how to move forward with managing the U.S.’s nuclear waste. In addition to recommending one or more long-term geologic repositories, they also recommended one or more interim, consolidated waste facilities. The committee also stated that any new facilities should be sited using a consensus-based approach that allows communities to play a central decision making role in the process. Incoming Energy Secretary Enrie Moniz, a member of the BRC, has voiced his commitment to putting these recommendations into motion during his term.
The last time we tried this was back in the early 1980’s with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which failed to take a transparent, consensus-based approach. Due to this fact there is an abundance of urban mythology in communities from Georgia to all the way out to Washington State about how “our town was almost turned into a nuclear waste dump.” For 5 years I lived in one of these towns- Asheville, NC- which like dozens of other locations was surveyed and quickly rejected based on inappropriate geology.
The story goes that the community didn’t get so much as a briefing and after a few locals spoke to the surveyors, rumors abounded that the federal government was planning to store waste there. There is still an active narrative, ‘that a small group of community members defeated the powerful nuclear lobby in their attempt to destroy our town,’ which has served as the lead in to just about every article on nuclear energy in the local papers ever since. Fighting nuclear projects is practically a local pastime.
Many involved in “fighting” this particular repository site (which, again, was only surveyed and never actually up for serious consideration) then made careers out of fighting all nuclear projects (locally and nationally), some are still at it today. Leaving people out of the dialogue is a big reason the nuclear industry has a bad rap. People hate feeling left out. This time we’ve got to do a better job at proactive inclusion.
Nuclear waste storage is perhaps the one thing that nuclear supporter, opponents, nonproliferation experts, politicians and everyday folks all agree on!! Everyone thinks we need a solution to the waste problem, like, yesterday. Three cheers for consensus!
And, thankfully, the industry has learned important lessons from the past and is working from a much better starting point:
Unlike the first go round; we already have 2 deep geological repositories. Neither is currently open to receiving commercial nuclear waste for political reasons- but they exist- and that’s half the battle. In fact, it’s got to be more like 4/5ths of the battle!
First, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is a fully functional repository in an underground salt bed in New Mexico, which currently accepts only government nuclear waste. The site has overwhelming community support and would like to open it’s doors to commercial waste as well- it’s really a matter of getting the proper policy in place. This is the most common sense solution- and I think that the group tasked with implementing the recommendations of the BRC will agree.
Additionally, although Yucca Mountain is currently shuttered, as leadership changes over time there is a possibility that it could be revisited. Since nuclear projects run on decades long time scales, while elections run on 2 and 4-year cycles, there is a strange history of nuclear projects being defunded, refunded, or suffering other budget fluxes for political reasons. It drives nuclear professionals absolutely crazy- and is a big part of why so many government contracted projects have trouble staying on time and on budget, and some never get finished- but it is a reality of the current industry. This dynamic makes it hard to rule Yucca out completely in the long run. That said, certainly WIPP seems the much smarter starting point than Yucca or beginning from scratch.
Which leaves us with siting and building one or more interim nuclear storage facilities. Unlike a geologic repository, there is not a need for a certain type of rock bed, so the options are far more open ended in terms of potential hosts. Location will play a role, but more in terms of accessibility and centrality to other sites that will be sending their waste to the site. As I found out last week while visiting the Netherlands, there are a lot of community benefits to hosting one of these facilities- and with the right people directing the effort, it can even be done with style.
I met Hans Codee at the PIME Conference in Switzerland earlier in my trip and was invited to attend an art exhibit at COVRA, the interim storage facility he directs in the Netherlands. Yes, you read that correctly- an art exhibit at a nuclear waste facility. In addition to quarterly art shows, on the days when nuclear materials aren’t being moved about the facility is open to the public and receives visitors regularly (more than 100 days per year). This is possible due to purposeful design in every aspect of the site, which Codee has overseen since the planning stages.
Hans explained to me that since everyone in the Netherlands is responsible for producing this waste though the consumption of energy, it was important that everyone has access to it- to understand the risks and benefits of nuclear energy. Additionally, he wanted the space to contribute to the community by offering both educational and cultural opportunities.
It difficult for me to describe just how effective this framework for managing an interim nuclear waste facility really is, so I will offer these images. Make sure to read the captions as you scroll over each image, or click on any image to start a slideshow:
My suggestion as we move forward with the BRC recommendation for an interim waste storage facility: build on the COVRA model. So much hangs in the balance in building public trust in nuclear waste management- we really need to create a U.S. interim site purposefully, beautifully and with style. Thankfully, we have a great example for how to do just that. A huge thank you to Hans Codee and the COVRA team- your facility exceeded my wildest expectations!
After a few lovely days in Oxford two weeks ago, I made a brief stop in London to check in with some of the excellent organizations working on communications, education and outreach in the nuclear sector in the UK. I stopped in at the World Nuclear Association (WNA) Offices- which is also the headquarters of the WNA subsidiaries World Nuclear News (WNN), the World Nuclear University (WNU), as well as the UK’s Nuclear Industry Association (NIA). I was greeted by Jeremy Gordon, the Head of Information Management of the WNA and Editor of WNN.
“The World Nuclear Association is the international organization that promotes nuclear energy and supports the many companies that comprise the global nuclear industry.” It achieves this mission through offering up to date public information on the global nuclear industry, conferences, training and represents the nuclear sector “in key world forums that shape the nuclear industry’s regulatory and policy environment.”
While WNA acts on the global stage, NIA is “the trade association and representative voice of the UK’s civil nuclear industry. [They] represent over 60,000 UK nuclear workers across more than 260 member companies.”
In addition to the wonderful art collection in the office (check out the gallery below), I was also pleased to see women in leadership positions at each of the organizations and a considerable number of young people working at the office (relative to nuclear industry averages). In my opinion, increasing diversity of the workforce is a critical factor in helping the nuclear industry improve it’s reputation and connect with wider audiences. Additionally these organizations each have a strong social media presence and well designed, easy to navigate websites- including a gorgeous revamp of the World Nuclear Association site in recent weeks. Not to pick on my American compatriots, but let’s just say that one of our most prominent nuclear organizations still uses a free blogger template from the mid-2000’s…not exactly cutting edge in the internet age!
Luckily for me, the timing of my visit coincided with the approval of two new nuclear units at Hinkley Point as a part of a carefully outlined plan to create 40,000 new jobs and move towards decarbonation of electricity sources in the UK. There have been a number of note worthy advances in the past months leading up to the UK government’s formal declaration including an agreement between renewable, carbon-capture & storage and nuclear proponents to cooperate in prioritizing low-carbon energy sources in the UK.
After touring the WNA offices I headed to dinner with Jeremy and Kirsty Alexander, the Director of Communications for NIA. I was impressed to learn that Kirsty, as well as noted writer and environmentalist Mark Lynas, who I’d met earlier in the week, were both critical in organizing the above mentioned agreement between the three groups- who do not always see eye to eye on energy issues. Something I’ve been advocating for lately is interest based bargaining– essentially problem solving that identities shared interest of all parties involved and uses them as a platform for cooperation and collaboration.
Putting the shared goal of reducing carbon emissions first allowed these three groups, which have been traditionally at odds with one another, to make big strides towards their common interest. This is the kind of innovative problem solving necessary to move nuclear and other low carbon technologies forward- as we are now seeing in the UK.
A big thanks to Jeremy and Kirsty for talking with me about your organizations’ respective educational and outreach efforts in the UK and worldwide. Keep up the great work!