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.