GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - The chances have never been better than they are now of permanently shutting down France's Superphoenix fastbreeder at Malville on the Rhone River. The fastbreeder has been stopped for nearly two years following a series of accidents; in order to reopen, it must get approval from the Direction de la Sureté des Installations Nucléaires (DSIN, the French government's reactor safety agency) and from the country's prime minister before July 3.
Forcing the closure of Superphoenix would be a major victory for anti-nuclear forces opposed to the French all-nuclear energy program. Superphoenix is not just a single nuclear plant; it is also the trump card in the French nuclear establishment's international strategy and a key element in the industry's plans to perpetuate itself. With Superphoenix, the French are front-runners in the field of fastbreeders (which theoretically "breed" more fuel than they use), and fastbreeders are the nuclear industry's only hope of prolonging world uranium resources for more than one or two generations. (All pro-nuclear scenarios, such as U.S. President George Bush's recent plan, call for a shift to fastbreeders toward the middle of the next century.) Shutting down Superphoenix, following the closing of the German fastbreeder at Kalkar, would be a major political and technical step toward abandoning nuclear power altogether, in France and worldwide. This helps explain why France's state power company, Elecricité de France (EDF), is defending Superphoenix, despite its record-breaking history of breakdowns - it has operated at full power for less than six months of its six-year existence - and its great cost - the bill is over $9 billion for a site that is still not finished or in working condition. Including fuel reprocessing costs would push the bill even higher.
It does not appear likely that Superphoenix will win the necessary approvals. The DSIN has stated that, before authorizing a startup for Superphoenix, it wants to understand the mysterious and potentially dangerous variations in reactivity that have been plaguing Phoenix (Superphoenix's predecessor) for the past two years. And despite heavy pressure from the nuclear lobby, the government is loath to override safety considerations for an increasingly controversial project. Concern with environmental issues and nuclear energy in particular is rapidly rising in France, evidenced most recently by the nearly 15 percent of the vote won by green parties in the country's March regional elections.
If the DSIN and the prime minister do not endorse Superphoenix, it will have to go through the long relicensing process, which includes public hearings, and that would probably finish off the project.
Didier Anger, national spokesperson for the French Green Party, says that unofficial ministry sources estimate that there are "three chances out of four" that the French government will at last abandon this very expensive, unsuccessful and unpopular project.
A formidable monopolistic machine
The French nuclear program is the most extreme example of the quasi-military style of centralized administration the French state inherited from the monarchy and Napoleon. There is no place for separation of powers, democratic process or independent watchdogs in the French system.
France's nuclear program (civil and military) was developed by an elite government bureaucracy, the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), acting on executive orders issued without any parliamentary involvement. EDF maintains a monopoly over all electric and gas power. Plant safety is controlled by the Ministry of Industry, but it relies on experts from the CEA. Until the Chernobyl accident, monitoring of radioactivity was the responsibility of another bureaucracy, which is so pro-nuclear that it denied the presence of the Chernobyl cloud over France. The CEA, rather than the universities, even provides training in nuclear engineering, which helps minimize the number of nuclear engineers who might be critical of the industry.
The French government undertook a dramatic expansion of the country's civilian nuclear program after the 1973 oil shock, provoking widespread opposition. But the government crushed the grassroots movement. In 1977, the police brutally dispersed a march of 60,000 protesters at the Superphoenix site, killing one person and wounding 100 others. In 1981, the Socialist Party came to power with a promise - quickly betrayed - to close Superphoenix and open a debate on nuclear power. The extra-parliamentary opposition was co-opted or disheartened. Some turned to sabotaging power lines, others continued organizing, but the pro-nuclear consensus between the major parties pushed the whole nuclear question out of the political arena, and, until the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, most newspapers refused to publish any critical commentary on nuclear power.
An invisible cloud
The first cloud in the nuclear industry's sky came from Chernobyl. Many journalists relayed assurances from a pro-nuclear profesor that there was "no significant increase in radioactivity" over France and "no reason to take preventative measures," only to discover that all neighboring countries were destroying large stocks of vegetable and dairy products and refusing entry to French products. The scandal sparked the creation of France's first independent lab monitoring radioactivity, the CRIIRAD, which has since discovered several significant hazards (notably an unguarded, plutonium-contaminated nuclear waste dump - where children were playing - left by the CEA at St. Aubin, near Paris).
The spell was broken. Despite the media blackout, small anti-nuclear grassroots organizations began to reemerge, and public opinion turned steadily against the industry.
The nuclear industry suffered another black eye in the late 1980s, as it searched for nuclear waste dump sites. At three of four potential sites, farmers, environmentalists and local notables (concerned about the bad publicity that a dump would give to their area and its products), joined together to rout all police efforts to open worksites for preliminary construction surveys. As many as 15,000 protesters occupied sites, invaded offices and seized equipment. Attacked with tear gas, farmers fought back with tractors spraying pig manure. In 1990, then-Prime Minister Michel Rocard was forced to announce a one-year moratorium on new waste dumps and to organize, in June 1991, the country's first real parliamentary debate on a nuclear issue.
A chance in a million, or five percent?
In February 1990, public confidence in the safety of the reactors themselves took a serious blow. Environmentalists leaked an alarming secret report, written by EDF safety chief Pierre Tanguy, to the press. The report discussed serious premature aging problems and three important design defects common to the whole series of 1500-megawatt pressurized water reactors (PWRs). Because EDF has standardized reactors in order to cut costs, these defects would normally imply immediate and costly retrofits in all of the French nuclear reactors of this type, causing lost production time all across the country. But with 70 percent of France's electricity produced by nuclear plants, it is impossible to stop all the defective plants at once, and defective reactors have continued to operate.
Worst of all, a re-evaluation of accident probabilities in light of operating experiences showed that the risk of a serious accident was at least 20,000 times higher than what had been previously estimated. After Chernobyl, EDF abandoned its earlier claims that a breach of confinement would be "impossible," but Tanguy's public estimate of the risk of a serious accident was on the order of one in a million. In the secret report, however, Tanguy concluded, "the probability of seeing such an accident [requiring, at a minimum, off-site restrictions on drinking water and foodstuffs] on one of our reactors during the next 10 years may be several percent." (The figures Tanguy cites add up to 5 percent.)
It seems that the likely political fallout of a potential accident scares EDF more than the health hazard itself. Tanguy expressed concern that an accident would provoke "very strong pressure to immediately stop all the reactors of the same type, if not all the nuclear reactors."
Tanguy also described the risk of accident as an important financial issue. EDF claims to produce very cheap nuclear electricity, and often sells it below cost. (EDF says it costs between 4 U.S. cents a kilowatt-hour for base production and 12 cents for peak production, but it also sells to Pechiney Aluminum for 1 cent and less.) This "dumping" has led the company to run up a debt of approximately $37 billion, an amount equivalent to one-and-a-half times its total sales - and Poland's entire foreign debt. In fact, EDF would be bankrupt were it not for the French state's guarantee, which also holds down interest rates. Tanguy is worried that the first serious accident would pull the financial rug from under EDF's feet: "The financiers know that it is the nuclear character of our production, and not our intrinsic value as an enterprise, that assures us a good position on the financial markets. And it is very clear for them that an incident in a nuclear plant would jeopardize this position."
Tanguy's fears are justified. He refers to and confirms the gravity of several close calls:
Superphoenix - stillbirth of a fastbreeder
The two French fastbreeders, Phoenix and Superphoenix, were named for the mythical bird, perpetually reborn from its own ashes, because theoretically fastbreeders prepare their own fuel. Functioning on plutonium, they can at the same time transmute non-fissile uranium 238 into plutonium - thereby enormously multiplying the world's (and particularly France's) modest nuclear fuel reserves. When President Carter stopped the U.S. program, the French saw a chance to be the frontrunner in a strategic race. Fastbreeders are also an abundant source of military-grade plutonium, which is highly valued by a French military that hopes to become the nucleus of a European nuclear strike force. The technicians' alchemical dream thus blended with state ambitions to blind the authorities to the incredible costs and risks of the plutonium fuel cycle.
Economically, the Superphoenix has been a major disaster. The reactor itself has already cost $9 billion, six times its initial price tag, and it is not finished or in working condition. EDF claims that the reactor will eventually produce electricity for only about twice the cost of standard PWRs, but it admits now that commercial models won't be viable until the middle of the next century.
Even that price estimate is misleading, however, since it does not take into account the costs of the whole fuel cycle, in particular reprocessing. Economist Dominique Finon of the University of Grenoble conducted an extensive independent analysis of the plutonium fuel cycle. He concluded that reprocessing costs roughly 10 times more than stocking used fuel without reprocessing. In fact, Finon says that "it would probably cost less to extract uranium from seawater" than it does to reprocess it.
The dangers of fastbreeders are so great that many otherwise pro-nuclear physicists oppose them. Superphoenix houses more than 6 tons of plutonium, a human- made element that is perhaps the most toxic substance in existence. It loses only half of its radioactivity in 24,000 years, and inhaling as little as a millionth of a gram can cause cancer. CRIIRAD has already detected traces of plutonium from the reactor in the Rhone River. Fastbreeder reactors are also the only reactors in which there can actually be an atomic explosion. An study conducted by Professor Jochen Benecke of Berlin University concluded that "it is impossible to affirm scientifically that the quantity of energy released would be less than the resistance of the confinement." He concludes that "a brutal rupture of the confinement, having as a consequence a catastrophic liberation of radioactivity, cannot be excluded."
These dangers are inherent in Superphoenix's design, and were known before construction started. The actual experience with Superphoenix has added a long list of breakdowns to the list of dangers, and demonstrated that the reality of fastbreeding is considerably less elegant than the idea. An incredible series of "impossible" accidents have occurred, two of which had been allotted an official probability of occurring "not more than once in 10,000 to 100,000 years." The accidents included: sodium leakage and destruction of the fuel transfer and storage drum (leaving the reactor incapable of evacuating or storing damaged fuel rods); the fall of a crane weighing several tons on the dome of the reactor; a sodium leak in the secondary circuit; cracks in the reactor vessel; and collapse of the roof (under a heavy load of snow!) onto one of the turbo-alternators, cutting off the plant from the electricity grid.
Understandably, the DSIN safety authorities have become unusually and publicly critical. Last summer, after the belated discovery of the problem in the secondary circuit, the DSIN director stated, "There is a question as to the operator's control of the reactor." DSIN is demanding that three problems be resolved before it will authorize a new startup.
Among the DSIN's demands is an explanation for why the Phoenix reactor has experienced sudden drops in reactivity. They were first attributed to a bubble of argon leaked into the reactor core, leading the CEA itself to admit that "a nuclear excursion [a euphemism for an explosion] ... is theoretically possible." It contended, however, that "the bubble would have had to be much more voluminous" for an explosion to have occurred. The incidents occurred again, however, just a few months after argon filters were changed on Phoenix and Superphoenix. The new hypothesis (deformation of the fuel rods) remains unproven, but also has serious safety implications. Yet EDF's Tanguy dismisses their importance. "The incidents didn't occur on Superphoenix," he says, "and I don't see why they would."
A burned-out bird?
Despite the media blackout in France, opposition to Superphoenix, long based in Switzerland (Geneva is only 45 miles away), has gradually grown. A recent poll in the Isere (the area where Superphoenix is located) indicated that 69 percent of the population believed that building Superphoenix had "been a mistaken decision" and that 78 percent thought the Superphoenix might become "a second Chernobyl."
On February 20, 1992, the European Committees Against Fastbreeding and Reprocessing, together with the French Greens and the Swiss Socialist Party, issued an open letter, signed by over 300 European elected officials, to the French Prime Minister Edith Cresson, calling on her to close the plant permanently. For the first time in 10 years, an initiative critical of the project was reported on television. The opposing groups are also asking that information submitted to the DSIN be made available to independent experts. Already, the ministers of Industry and Environment have stated publicly that they are in favor of closing Superphoenix. Even its strongest defenders now realize that the French nuclear program is going to be subjected to much more public debate and scrutiny than ever before.
With national programs stalled, the fastbreeder lobby has reacted by trying to organize international cooperation, particularly around the European Fast Breeder project.
But the opposition is also beginning to organize at the global level.
The Japanese Citizen's Nuclear Information Center attracted worldwide international attention by sponsoring an international conference denouncing the ecological dangers and military interests behind the Japanese program.
The European Committees Against Fastbreeding and Reprocessing is trying to expand its campaign against Superphoenix to include action against the French CEA's involvement in a scandalous fastbreeder project near Chelyabinsk in the Urals. It would be built in a reprocessing complex that has already emitted massive amounts of radiation. Radioactivity of cow manure in the area is up to 800 times background levels. French nuclear specialists, however, apparently have no qualms about working with their Russian colleagues who have created (and kept secret) this incredible situation. Local authorities and activists are organizing an international conference in Chelyabinsk in May, in collaboration with the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences. The opposition is calling for plutonium fuel reprocessing to be outlawed.
-Olivier de Marcellus