France initiated a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing program to provide plutonium for its nuclear weapons program in Marcoule in 1958. Later, the vision of the rapid introduction of plutonium fueled fast-neutron breeder reactors drove the large-scale separation of plutonium for civilian purposes, starting with the opening of the La Hague plant in 1966, financed under the military and civilian budgets of the Atomic Energy Commission (Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique, CEA). This effort initially was supported broadly by neighboring European countries who contributed to the French fast breeder project and, along with Japan, signed up for French reprocessing services in the 1970’s.
Military plutonium separation by France produced an estimated total of about 6 tons of weapon grade plutonium and ceased in 1993. But civilian reprocessing continues. Virtually all other European countries, apart from the United Kingdom, have abandoned reprocessing and the U.K. plans to end its reprocessing within the next decade. France’s last foreign reprocessing customer for commercial fuel is the Netherlands, which has only a single small 34-year-old power-reactor, and Italy, which ceased generating nuclear electricity after the 1986 Chernobyl reactor accident in the Ukraine.
This report looks at the reprocessing experience at France’s Marcoule and La Hague sites. Since commercial reprocessing ended at the Marcoule site in 1997 and its operational history of reprocessing gas-graphite reactor fuel is not very relevant to today’s commercial light water reactor (LWR) reprocessing, the report focuses primarily on the La Hague site.
Since its inception, France’s reprocessing industry has benefited from strong financial, technical and political support. The French experience therefore constitutes a case of reprocessing under optimal conditions. Since reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel does not “close the nuclear fuel cycle”, as is often claimed, but involves at each stage the production of significant waste streams, we treat it as an open “fuel chain” and assess the record of French reprocessing in terms of waste management, radioactive discharges, radiological and health impacts as well as cost.