Thursday, July 2, 2009


By David Frum - Tuesday, June 30, 2009 9:46 AM

Today I did something to tell the grandchildren about: I stood in a large room, looking rather like a high school gymnasium, atop something like one-third of France’s most radioactive nuclear waste. After a few minutes of this, I turned in disappointment to my hosts: Aren’t I supposed to have gained superhero powers by now? Alas, when the dosimeter was scanned on the way out of the facility, it showed that we had absorbed in our visit rather less radioactivity than on the air flight from Washington to Paris.

Unlike the United States, France reprocesses spent nuclear fuel. After approximately four years of service, the fuel rods containing uranium are removed from the reactor cores and moved to this large plant near La Hague, just east of Flamanville.

Here the fuel rods are sliced into pieces by robot arms, then dumped into vats of nitric acid. The acid dissolves the metal rods and the depleted uranium enclosed within, yielding four byproducts: metal, liquid uranium, liquid plutonium, and other radioactive wastes.

The metal is removed, crushed, and encased in a new stainless steel cladding that looks very like a tall thin thermos. The liquid uranium is mixed with more radioactive uranium, re-enriched, and used for another fuel cycle. The plutonium is blended with other chemicals to produce a gas, MOX, that is used as fuel by a specialized reactor in the south of France.

Last, the residue, the most radioactive material, cesium and other byproducts of nuclear fission, is bonded with glass - vitrified is the technical term - and transformed into a black glass that looks like obsidian and that never degrades. Even if smashed into pieces, even if ground into dust, the glass and waste will be bonded together. Trying to separate them, as our guide explained, would be like trying to grind the blue out of a blue-tinted glass.

The vitrified waste is also encased in the familiar steel thermos tube. The two kinds of waste, low-grade and high-grade, meet the same fate. If non-French, they are returned to the customer that generated them for storage. If French, they are kept at La Hague, almost 20 meters below ground, in a massive concrete vault topped by more concrete, accessible only through concrete topped tubes like that on which I stood as the story was told.

The tubes will be opened again and the metal thermoses removed when France completes the selection and preparation of a permanent storage site, a task scheduled for completion by the end of this decade.

Until then, however, they sit here, no trouble to anyone.

Nuclear waste conjures up images of ultra-toxic green sludge, one spill away from poisoning the planet. In fact, all energy production generates waste, including some very dangerous wastes: not only carbon dioxide, but sulphur dioxide and coal slag. The waste from fossil fuels typically evanesces invisibly into the atmosphere, but that disappearance from view does not render it harmless. If anything, the very invisibility of fossil waste enhances its harm, by deluding us into imagining that what has vanished from sight has vanished from existence.

David Frum, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the editor of