Long Night of the Living Dead: Superphénix reincarnated as Astrid

France experienced nothing but nightmares with its 20th century experiment with fast breeder reactor technology. I covered this topic previously in a series of translations of French documents about the Superphénix reactor failure: Superphénix Part 1, Superphénix Part 2, and Superphénix Part 3.
The first time around, the French fast breeder reactor was met with vigorous resistance by protesters. In 1977, 60,000 protesters assembled on the construction site and were met by riot police. One fatality ensued and there were other injuries of protesters and police. During construction, a small cell of eco-warriors attacked the reactor with a bazooka. They hoped to destroy the reactor vessel before it was loaded with fuel, but the missile missed the mark. In 2003, a Swiss member of parliament confessed to the deed after the statute of limitations had passed. To this day, some pro-nuclear advocates use this case as proof that some in the ecology movement are dangerous radicals who would cause a nuclear disaster to prove their point. One may disagree with the tactic, but one thing that should be understood about this attack is that it was deliberately carried out before nuclear materials were loaded into the reactor. There was no intention to cause a nuclear disaster.
After the Superphénix reactor was switched on, it was plagued with technical problems and cost overruns. The government shut it down and decommissioning work began in 1997. The job is set to last another 20 years at least. Nonetheless, the French breeder reactor is back like an undead beast that needs to be continually fed then beaten back into the grave by vigilant citizens. Incredibly, France, Britain and Japan are co-operating on this project as if it’s a Three Stooges movie. France brings its expertise with the failed Superphénix reactor, Britain shares its valuable experience in ecological contamination from Sellafield, and Japan feels it has a contribution to make with the lessons learned from its Monju boondoggle. Like nuclear waste itself, the dream of the perfectibility of nuclear technology is persistent, indestructible and toxic.
The text that follows is a translation of a report on the latest incarnation of the fast breeder reactor.
Astrid, 4th Generation Reactor: Miracle Technology or Dangerous Chimera?

Originally published in French by Sortir du Nucléaire, May 2014:

In July 2012, on the occasion of the signing of an accord between the CEA (Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique et aux Énergies Alternatives) and Bouygues Construction, a discreet nuclear project came out of the shadows: the Astrid reactor.
This prototype is a representative of the famous “4th Generation” of reactors: a very modern label for a project which, nonetheless, has nothing fundamentally new about it. What are the characteristics of Astrid? Why does the nuclear industry have such hope for it? And what are the risks and the failings linked to this chimerical project?

Astrid? Say what?

Sign the petition against the Astrid reactor: http://marcoule.ecoloweb.fr/

ASTRID: This acronym (Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration) in the form of a pretty first name is supposed to be the prototype of a new model of sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor. This reactor, said to be “4th Generation” [1] presented by the CEA as “a technological break with all that has come before” is, however, only a slightly modified version of the Superphénix, the breeder reactor closed in 1997 because of multiple breakdowns during 12 years of operation.
The Astrid project has been undertaken since 2006 by the CEA, in partnership with Areva, EDF, Bouygues Construction, Alstom… In 2010, it had already benefited from 650 million euros in loans called “financing for future investments.” The government is supposed to decide whether to continue the project in the years to come. If it does, the prototype 600 MW reactor will debut in 2017 (construction of the reactor core is to begin in 2016) and be put into service in 2020. The exploitation of commercial models is to begin toward the year 2040.

A Miracle Technology?

While leaving the EPR technology [3rd Generation pressurized water reactor] with a deployment time of decades into the future (a deployment always compromised by the failures so far at the EPR projects under construction at Flamanville and Olkiluoto, Finland), Astrid has appeal for the nuclear industry.
We are told that this reactor will “recycle” a great number of nuclear materials, as it will use as fuel low-enriched uranium, depleted uranium and plutonium from stocks of spent nuclear fuel. The CEA states, “A fleet of fast neutron reactors equal in capacity to the present fleet of reactors operated by EDF could thus function for at least 2,500 years with only the spent fuel and depleted uranium presently in existence in French installations!” To the extent that it produces plutonium, the Astrid could also produce its own fuel, solving the problem of an eventual lack of uranium. A perfect solution, permitting the generation of infinite energy?
According to the CEA, Astrid would permit us to reduce the length of time that certain “minor actinides” are dangerous: by the process of transmutation, these nuclear materials transform themselves into others with a shorter period of radioactivity (but still longer than many centuries!).

The Myth of an Inexhaustible Fuel Supply

Infinite energy? It seems too good to be true, and so there is a point at which the ardent promoters of nuclear put a nuance on the enthusiastic declarations of the CEA. They stress that in order to start a single “fast neutron reactor” of commercial size, an enormous quantity of plutonium would be needed. So, in fact, choosing this option requires that there also be new reactors of the “classic” design that produce plutonium.

An Alibi for Dodging the Problem of Waste Disposal

Astrid is no more and no less than an alibi for the atomic industry: to start the 4th Generation of reactors, we would have to construct other new reactors in advance [to make the plutonium starter fuel].  Furthermore, the prospect of the future “recycling” of nuclear waste and plutonium provides a formidable caution against continuing to operate reactors without worrying about the dangerous products they produce.
In fact, if radioactive material could potentially be re-used, even if only hypothetically, French law considers it not to be a waste product but rather a “valued material.” Therefore, the prospect of the emergence of these 4th Generation reactors over the next few decades will allow the industry to subtract hundreds of tons of plutonium, tens of thousands of tons of irradiated uranium, and hundreds of thousands of tons of depleted uranium from the inventory of waste products. This represents a colossal stock of dangerous materials which will be unaccounted for in cost assessments of nuclear waste disposal. For the time being, the industry is content to keep accumulating it.
Renouncing Astrid is a matter of pulling down this smokescreen and thus exposing the real costs of nuclear. This is a risk that successive governments seem unwilling to take.

A High Risk Technology

Consider now the specific risks of fast neutron sodium-cooled reactors. It seems like the partisans of this design have decided to play with fire.
Let’s keep in mind first of all that plutonium, the fuel used and produced in the reactor, is an extremely toxic material. One microgram suffices to cause a cancer in the lung. The use of plutonium also increases proliferation risks. It only takes a few kilos to make a bomb. Finally, plutonium is more prompt than uranium—it can trigger uncontrolled chain reactions more readily. Using it increases the risk of causing uncontrolled chain reactions comparable to what happened at Chernobyl.
Furthermore, Astrid will use liquid sodium for heat removal, but this material is flammable on contact with water or air. In similar reactors, many sodium leaks have occurred which led to dangerous fires (the Monju reactor in Japan, cousin of Astrid, has been out of operation for fifteen years since such an accident). By the admission of the CEA, the properties of this fluid seriously complicate the operation of the reactor: “the fluid used for heat removal is hot (at least 180 °C, and 550 °C in the reactor core) and it is opaque. That makes inspection during operation difficult. Special imaging techniques need to be developed, such as ultrasound scanners, in order to do an inspection that doesn’t require removal of the sodium. Draining the sodium is a long and delicate operation during which time the reactor is not producing electricity.” [2] The Monju reactor is a good example of the problems involved. In August 2010, a metallic piece weighing 3.3 tons fell into the reactor. The operations undertaken to recover it were so complicated, because of the presence of sodium, that a restart is considered impossible.
The risks associated with this design once led an engineer for EDF, J.P. Pharabod, to say about the predecessor of Astrid, “It is not unreasonable to think that a grave accident involving the Superphénix could kill more than a million people.” [3] A few decades later, the scant improvements in the design leave little hope that its safety has been improved.
Finally, what can we say about the future dismantling of such reactors? The dismantling of the Superphénix has been a major headache. Fifteen years after the shutdown, it is still necessary to cool the spent fuel. To “neutralize” the 5,500 tons of sodium on the site, the only solution has been to transform it into a soda, pouring it drop-by-drop into concrete. The process will last for years still.
So why has France chosen to go down this aberrant road again? Probably because it wants to get something out of the Superphénix experience, even if it was a proven catastrophe. After its failings and exorbitant costs, 652 million euros have so far been spent on the development of Astrid. This is probably only the start, if we consider past experiences: according the Court of Auditors, the Superphénix has so far cost 12 billion euros.
In addition, the characteristics of these reactors seem to lead to a multiplication of breakdowns and incidents. In 12 years, Superphénix produced electricity for only 53 months, and operated at full power for only 200 days. The Monju reactor produced electricity for only one hour! [4]. Even after being shut down, the fuel must be cooled by liquid sodium, which requires inputs of electricity to keep it circulating in a liquid state. Thus the energy efficiency of these reactors could end up being mediocre or negative.

A Plan We Should Urgently Abandon

With Astrid, French citizens must face the fait accompli of the deployment of a new reactor design that is onerous and chimerical. In 2012, when the deputy Noël Mamère railed at the funds consumed by this project, the government pretended that nothing was officially decided and the subject would be covered during a national debate on the energy transition. But this wasn’t the case, and the matter escaped the oversight of citizens and elected officials.
The risks posed by Astrid are unacceptable, and it should be considered scandalous to spend billions on a chimerical technology during a period of economic crisis.
Instead of deluding itself about the “nuclear future,” France should urgently invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Once again, Germany offers us an example to follow: our neighbors across the Rhine stopped the construction of such a reactor and turned the site into an amusement park!


[1] France is investing in other reactor designs called “4th Generation,” notably plutonium reactors using gas for heat removal.
[2] Les défis du CEA n°152, juillet-août 2010.
[3] Science et Vie n°703, avril 1976
[4] “Japan Strains to Fix a Reactor Damaged Before Quake,” The New York Times, June 17, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/18/world/asia/18japan.html
The article above was originally published in French by Sortir du Nucléaire, May 2014:

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