Superphénix (Part 1)

(These links go to Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.)
In recent blog posts I’ve written about new attempts to resurrect the failed technology of fast breeder reactors. Much of this promotion is happening in an atmosphere of ignorance and amnesia regarding the contentious battles of the past that led to the slow, painful death of fast breeder projects in various countries. France’s experience with its Superphenix project is an excellent way to learn about the failures and dangers of fast breeder reactors because this project was met with a level of opposition that did not exist in other countries that attempted to develop the same technology.

It is common knowledge that France is one of the most nuclear dependent nations in the world, deriving 80% of its electricity from nuclear. This might lead some to the false conclusion that the French populace passively endorsed this policy. In fact, France has arguably had the most active and well-informed antinuclear movement in the world. The fact that the government went ahead with its massive buildup of nuclear energy is proof of what a military-industrial complex can do when it is determined to advance its dangerous agenda without the broad consent of its citizens.
The site of the Superphenix reactor was once occupied in 1977 by 60,000 protesters who were met with violent resistance from the state. Many were injured, one protester died, two lost limbs, and one police officer lost a hand to his own grenade. In spite of the opposition, construction went ahead until the plant was completed in 1984. It produced electricity for only eleven years, and during much of that time it was offline. Over its entire lifetime, from construction to the present stage of dismantling, it is said to have consumed more electricity than it ever produced. In 1997, it was shut down because of repeated failures, runaway costs, safety concerns and political opposition.
During construction, a small radical cell carried out several attacks against electrical towers and construction equipment. For their final act, they used a shoulder mounted rocket launcher to attack the power plant, and came within inches of striking the reactor vessel. When the statute of limitations was up in 2003, the perpetrator confessed and wrote a book about it. He had been an elected representative of the Green Party in Switzerland in the intervening years. This part of the story is little known outside of France and Switzerland, but it is a cautionary tale for present day nuclear operators who worry about vulnerability to terror attacks.

The story of the Superphenix has been well documented in France, but it seems to have stayed behind the language barrier. For the next few posts on this blog, I intend to write translations of a few articles from French language media. These provide information about the early days of the Superphenix project, the opposition to it, and the ongoing dismantling that is yet to continue for many years to come.

Translated from an article first published in Le Monde Diplomatique, April 2011.

Ten years for construction, thirty for deconstruction. The Superphenix produced electricity for only eleven years. But the history of the emblem of French nuclear technology is far from being over.

by Christine Bergé, April 2011

Arriving by highway at Creys-Malville, one sees right away the imposing reactor building with its mass of concrete reaching eighty meters high. Installed in a bend of the Rhone, in the middle of the fields and forests of Isere, Superphenix is always a hub of activity. Four hundred people have been working there ever since the announcement of its dismantlement over ten years ago. They perform delicate operations, taking out the vital functions one by one with the aim of reaching its definitive disarmament. The work is set to last another twenty years. It is “the volcano at the port of Lyon,” according to the philosopher Lanza del Vasto, the largest fast breeder reactor in the world. The abandonment of the project was decreed by [president] Lionel Jospin on June 19, 1997, but it still requires the full attention of the engineers of the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique (CEA).
The power plant at Creys-Malville is a type of fast neutron reactor, which are different technologically and economically from pressurized water reactors, like those in Flamanville. It became a mythic machine, destined to regenerate its own fuel. Its evoked the fabulous bird that was reborn from its ashes. It also became the focal point of combat for ecologists who opposed nuclear energy.
Construction began in 1976, during the golden age of French nuclear expansion which, at the time, was accompanied by the imagery of the architecture of nuclear power plants. It is flanked by four orange towers and the turbine buildings, while the reactor is like a throne at the center of an industrial park of eighty hectares. Around it the machine rooms were assembled, along with the command center, technical workshops and administrative offices. One can see already the scars of finished operations. On the scaffolding on the walls of the reactor building, men seem miniscule. They are in the process of butchering one of the sluices that allowed the ventilation of the turbines, which prevented leaks in the treatment of five thousand tons of liquid sodium – some of which is still in the reactor vessel.

The heart of a young man

It was the physicist Enrico Fermi who, in 1945, proposed the concept of the fast breeder (1) and launched the global pursuit of this technology. In 1946, the United States constructed Clementine, the first fast neutron reactor, cooled with mercury. Five years later, they succeeded in producing electricity with a second fast neutron reactor, the Experimental Breeder Reactor (EBR) in Idaho. The British made their attempt in 1955. In 1967, France established the reactor called Rapsodie in Cadarache, as well as two sister reactors, Harmonie and Masurca. The next year the Soviets began work on their BOR-60, then the BN-350 in 1972.
Then the oil shock came. In 1973, France inaugurated Phoenix, a sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor, in Marcoule. The same year, the Germans built a fast breeder, Kalkar (which they abandoned later). In 1974, the UK’s new fast breeder started in Dounreay, Scotland. With its 250 megawatts of electric power, Phoenix symbolized the rise of the mythic perpetual motion machine.
Immediately, they dreamed bigger: the Superphenix project began. It would produce 1,200 MW, five times more than Phoenix. The French created for it a specific club, the NERSA, implying a “Europe of Six”: Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The Americans and Russians, present at the beginning, pulled out of the project. A sister club of NERSA formed in Germany to form the alter ego of Superphenix. But the political ascension of ecologists impeded the birth of this German brother.
The new fast breeder surpassed by far the power of all the others. This step elicited concerns, even among certain engineers within the CEA. The decree of authorization was halted and a showdown ensued (2). Certain engineers preferred a fast breeder of 600 MW, with a lower construction cost.
To comprehend this site, one must also look beyond the barbed wire that demarcated the boundary. Who remembers what happened here thirty years ago? In 1971, the French chapter of Friends of the Earth demanded a moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants. Created in 1975, the Malville chapter called an assembly for July 3, 1976. 20,000 people came to protest at the gates of the construction site.
Blocked by security forces, the assembly remained peaceable and calmly dispersed. In April 1976, the journal Science et Vie published an article by a former engineer of Electricité de France (EDF), who wrote, “It is not unreasonable to believe that a grave accident at Superphenix could occur, killing millions of persons.” In effect, the sodium-plutonium cocktail presented undeniable risks.
In 1977, one year after the start of construction, the decree of authorization was given. On July 31, the ecology movement organized a new gathering. It went badly and was severely repressed. It finished with numerous injured, three mutilations and one death: Vital Michalon. It came to be remembered as “The Battle of Malville.”
The same year, antinuclear pressure caused American President Jimmy Carter to cancel the fast breeder project at Clinch River, which was set to be a comparatively modest 400 MW plant. Soon, the history of civil nuclear technology would be inseparable from accidents. In 1979, the plant at Three Mile Island had a serious accident involving a partial meltdown of its core. French ecologists started a petition demanding the cancellation of the Superphenix construction. In 1981, to their great disappointment, the newly elected socialist government decided to keep the project going. The Russians had just launched the most powerful fast breeder reactor of the time, the 600 MW BN-600 [still operating today]. At the same time, a cell of militants led by Chaïm Nissim organized small scale sabotage at Creys-Malville. In 1982, a rocket launcher fired on the reactor building causing minor damage (3).
In 1984, the plant was complete. The reactor vessel and intermediate circuits were filled with sodium. The lifeblood of the phoenix began to circulate in its veins, but it circulated for only eleven years. In 1997, a leftist coalition government of socialists, communists and ecologists signed the death warrant for the Superphenix. The cloud of Chernobyl had passed over France. Some said it was far from being at the end of its life. Disappointed engineers said the plant still had the “heart of a young man.” Only half of its fuel had been consumed.
I will not rehash here the debate over the relative ripeness of the Superphenix. Often stopped because of technical problems and blocked by administrative procedures, the prototype went through numerous experiments. It carried the hope that it would learn to devour minor actinides, the long-lived highly radioactive by-products. Engineers had acquired a lot of know-how. They loved their machine. “The boiler simmered like a casserole,” they said. The outcome seemed to them to be a dream cut short.
Under the nocturnal dome of the reactor building, 80 meters high, the powerful arm of the highest turntable in Europe works to extract the components that used to run the machine. Down below, men work in a brightly lit arena. The closer one approaches, the more one feels the heat of the sodium (180 °C) enclosed in the reactor vessel. The heat from the sodium radiates invisibly, covered by a “sky of argon” – an inert gas that prevents oxidation of the sodium.
It is here that surgical operations of grand dimensions are undertaken. The core of the reactor has already been removed. Hundreds of fuel assemblies are cooled in pools of water sixteen meters deep. Under layers of electric cables, one can see enormous manifolds, pieces of which have been covered in opaque metallic film. These were the arteries of the heat exchangers.
In the turbine rooms, operations have been terminated. On the walls, one perceives traces of the torch burns left by the dismemberment of pipes. Fuchsia colored labels indicate pieces which must be left connected. Others labeled in blue indicate air intake ducts, reminding everyone that the site will be inhabited until the last work is done.
The great phoenix is no longer seated on its immortal pyre. Most of its old organs, cut up in measured pieces, are enclosed in containers destined to join the stock of the national agency for the management of nuclear waste (ANDRA). All that is not irradiated goes into the proper waste stream. The rest has to be decontaminated and treated.
In an integral section of the reactor building, they use a plasma torch to cut away the parts that were immersed in radioactive sodium. Farther away, the ten-thousand-square-meter machine room no longer shelters the turbines. It serves as a revolving storage room for parts coming in and waiting to be shipped off. It also holds the sodium treatment facility, most of which is irradiated. It is a matter of transferring this fluid in very small quantities in a solution of aqueous soda. The mix obtained from this is mixed with cement, calcium chloride and Sodeline, an adjuvant. The process is done slowly because of the inherent risk of sodium, which is both explosive and flammable. In the end, there will be 38,000 blocks of sodium-soaked concrete that will be left on the site until 2035,  in storage areas designed specifically for this purpose. The blocks cannot be removed until their radioactivity has subsided sufficiently.
To protect workers against ionizing radiation, to minimize exposure as much as possible, the site is demarcated into contaminated and uncontaminated areas. Movement within this unstable environment is facilitated by special suits, pressurized air and radiation detection badges. Work is complicated by the fact that dismantling techniques were not thought out beforehand at the time of the plant’s design. Each task is specific, carrying risks that have to be identified on the fly. The skills of the workers are drawn upon to solve problems as they arise. Thus there is an acquired knowledge accumulating about such decommissioning projects. All of this is led by the Center for Engineering, Deconstruction and the Environment.

The Question of Memory

On the site, all ordinary actions benefit from having an important, daily traceability. In addition, events and incidents are recorded by the Autorité de sûreté nucléaire, and this forms a history of the plant from its birth to the conclusion of dismantling. The remnants of the buildings are also a memory. As Estelle Chapalain stresses, “The dismantling of the installation is an implacable revelation of its history and the more or less good practices involved in its exploitation. In terms of radioprotection and work safety, particular attention must be paid to the unforeseen situations that we sometimes find (4).”
The memory of places and actions, as well as know-how: these remain as essential issues. When treated materials are to circulate elsewhere, it is necessary to know where they will go. For example, there are still uncertainties about where the sodium-saturated blocks of concrete will go. What will become of them in thirty years? What about the uranium and plutonium in the storage pools at Creys-Malville? Is EDF reserving the option to use them someday in a new fast neutron reactor? Responding to these questions presupposes that the memory of all that has gone before will be passed on. This means the preservation of all the knowledge and the techniques that exist in the minds of those who took part in the construction. In other words, this knowledge must be saved before these people are dispersed back to nature. Christophe Béhar, the director of nuclear energy at the CEA asks, “Who is going to take over in 2025 for all the retiring engineers?”

Christine Bergé is a philosopher, anthropologist and author of:


(1) Un surgénérateur produit plus de matière fissile qu’il n’en consomme.
(2) Cf. Dominique Finon, L’Echec des surgénérateurs. Autopsie d’un grand programme, Presses universitaires de Grenoble, 1989.
(3) Cf. Chaïm Nissim, L’Amour et le monstre. Des roquettes contre Creys-Malville,Favre, Lausanne-Paris, 2004.
(4) Estelle Chapalain, «  Sûreté et radioprotection lors des opérations de démantèlement : les risques principaux  », Contrôle, n° 152, ASN, Paris, 2003.

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