Newswise — As it happens, there is now an ideal test case to evaluate that enticing proposition. France, which has never backed away from nuclear energy, has long relied on reprocessing as the linchpin of its nuclear electricity system. France's chemical processing of nuclear waste takes place at La Hague, on the country's west coast, where a sprawling facility was upgraded in the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, France cut a deal with five countries--Belgium, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and Switzerland--to finance its modernization. In exchange, France agreed to reprocess those countries' spent fuel and return their separated plutonium, so as to reduce high-level waste volumes and provide additional fresh nuclear fuel.
Even some of the nuclear industry's most tenacious opponents acknowledge that the result is a technical marvel. The leader of Greenpeace France's antinuclear program, Yannick Rousselet, says he no longer cites technical challenges in his criticism of La Hague.
But despite that record of technical success, the La Hague business has lost much of its shine during the past decade. France's European partners rethought the wisdom of their investment in La Hague and, one by one, stopped shipping their spent fuel. From its 1997 to 1998 peak of 1700 metric tons per year, La Hague's throughput sharply decreased by 2003 to an average of 1100 metric tons per year. The ultimate cause for the slump traces back to the demise of the next-generation reactors designed to consume La Hague's plutonium, the so-called fast breeders.
France made the most serious effort of any country to build such reactors, but its full-scale commercial prototype ended in failure. The net result: reprocessing as practiced in France does not achieve the dramatic reductions in nuclear waste volumes originally advertised.