Only a tiny minority of nuclear waste contains the vast majority of radiation produced by such waste. “No less than 96% of the radioactivity comes from just 0.2% of the waste volume,” highlights Arint SA MD François Mellet. Nuclear waste is generally divided into low-level waste, intermediate-level waste and high-level waste, the level referring to the radioactivity of the material. However, France’s National Radioactive Waste Management Agency (better known by its French acronym, Andra) actually puts nuclear waste into five categories. These are: very low-level waste, low-level long-life waste, low- and intermediate-level short-life waste, intermediate-level long-life waste and high-level waste. Note that this waste includes material that does not come from nuclear power plants – for example, from nuclear medicine facilities.
In his presentation at last month’s Nuclear Africa 2016 conference, Mellet reported that, as of the end of 2013, the volumes of long half-life nuclear waste held by France came to 91 000 m3 of low-level waste and 44 000 m3 of intermediate waste, while the high-level waste amounted to only 3 200 m3. “The highest volume is basically your low and medium [radio]activity waste.”
France is one of the world’s leading users of nuclear energy. According to the World Nuclear Association, the country currently gets some 75% of its electricity from nuclear power plants. Included in this is the 17% of its electricity produced from recycled nuclear fuel. National Utility Currently, 58 nuclear reactors are operational, all belonging to the national utility, EDF (previously Électricité de France), with a total capacity of 63.2 GWe. In comparison, the capacity of France’s hydroelectric plants was 25.4 GWe, of wind plants 9.1 GWe, of solar photovoltaic plants 5.3 GWe and of fossil fuel plants 24.4 GWe.
This situation is the result of a 1974 decision by the then French government, following the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries cartel’s decision to greatly increase oil prices, to rapidly expand the country’s nuclear sector. This was to achieve energy independence, exploit France’s strong engineering base, while obviating the problem of the country having few natural energy resources. (Today, it is believed that France has substantial shale gas resources – in 2014, the US Energy Information Administration estimated French shale gas resources at 5 094-billion cubic metres, but these were not even on the radar in 1974. Extraction of shale gas is currently banned in France.)
Carbon Dioxide Emissions
As a result, the country today has both a high level of energy independence and one of the lowest cost electricity supplies in Europe. It also means that the production of electricity in France produces only extremely low levels of carbon dioxide emissions. (Add in hydropower, and more than 90% of French electricity generation is effectively emissions-free.) France also exports electricity, at an average annual amount of 70-billion kilowatt hour over the past decade. Its main export markets are Italy, the UK, Switzerland and Belgium, although Spain also figures. Electricity is actually France’s number four export, earning more than €3-billion annually and the country is the world’s biggest exporter of electricity.
The current administration of President François Hollande announced in 2012 that it would reduce nuclear’s share of French electricity generation to 50% by 2025. Nuclear generating capacity has been capped by legislation at the current level of 63.2 GWe. As new plants come into operation, older plants will have to be decommissioned to keep within the prescribed capacity, even if they still have years of life left in them. This process should start with the commissioning of the new European Pressurised Water Reactor at Flamanville (Flamanville 3). However, this will now only happen in late 2018 and the next French general and Presidential elections are scheduled for 2017.