A modest proposal for changing the conversation about nuclear proliferation

A modest proposal for changing the conversation about nuclear proliferation: the standard view of nuclear proliferation risk might be completely backwards

One perennial aspect of the battle over nuclear energy is the question of proliferation risk. Advocates of nuclear energy say that the spread of nuclear power plants does not necessarily have to accelerate the spread of nuclear weapons. Opponents say that this proliferation risk can never be eliminated because any nation that gets a nuclear power plant will have the potential to build nuclear weapons.
Could it be that we have defined this problem in the wrong direction? After all, seventy years into the nuclear age, the record shows that an unexpected thing happened on the way to Armageddon. The feared nuclear war between the superpowers never happened, and a nuclear weapon has never been accidentally detonated, in spite of many nightmarish near misses and “broken arrow” incidents. In contrast, nuclear power plants have a record of devastating accidents, the most famous of which are Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Of course, deliberate weapons tests were crimes against the biosphere and the marginalized ethnic groups who were downwind. Furthermore, the front end and back end of the nuclear weapons industry have left a trail of accidents and environmental contamination. I’m just leaving these issues aside here in order to make a point about nuclear power plants. While the IAEA and the international community were (and still are) preoccupied with what turned out to be a failed attempt to stop weapons proliferation, the beginning of the end of the Cold War came with the explosion of the Number 4 Reactor at Chernobyl.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Unit 4 ruins, 1986
 This was the occasion when it should have been obvious to all that the proliferation risk goes in the other direction. Fukushima should have been enough to drive the point home. The best reason to fight for the abolition of nuclear weapons is that they present an unacceptable risk of the proliferation of nuclear power plants. Just look at the historical record of how these two technologies came to various countries.
Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, 2011
The bombs came first in 1945, then the nuclear power plants came a decade later under the deceptive banner of “atoms for peace.” Now we have about 400 nuclear power plants throughout the world, and each one of them is essentially a nuclear fuel and nuclear waste production facility, with years of accumulated waste usually sitting above ground in long-term storage. The recent failure at the disposal site in New Mexico has cast doubt on underground disposal as a solution for nuclear waste. Each power plant is a large dirty bomb in waiting. Each one could potentially cause a large-scale social and ecological catastrophe if it were struck by a natural disaster or an act of war or sabotage.
As we look at the record of individual countries, we see that several have built power plants under the cover of building a nuclear arsenal for deterrence and self-defense. In the case of the USA, the USSR, China, France, and the UK, this was the duplicitous strategy. Other countries like Canada, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and many others were much bolder. They didn’t even bother to express any peaceful intention of just wanting a deterrent. They boldly went straight to nuclear power plants.
Israel and North Korea are the only two countries that have nuclear weapons but no nuclear power plants. They had the good sense to not trust themselves and tied themselves to the mast as they sailed past the siren song promising cheap and clean electricity. Pakistan has also been fairly restrained for a nation in possession of nuclear weapons, having only two plants in operation. We could call these three the axis of self-restraint. They have not let their nuclear arsenals proliferate into dangerous fleets of nuclear reactors, and their geopolitical circumstances make the reasons obvious. They have enough cause to take seriously the possibility that hostile actors might target a nuclear power plant as a way of dealing a blow that could be as calamitous as a nuclear detonation.
However, there is no guarantee that these three shining examples of global leadership will always be so sensible. A guarantee of safety could come only from the hardening of a global taboo against the possession of nuclear weapons--not for the usual reasons that everyone is rightly afraid of, but for the less acknowledged reason that nuclear weapons pose an unacceptable risk of nuclear power plant proliferation.


What would Voltaire say about CIGEO?

What would Voltaire say about CIGEO?
Chateau de Cirey, Haute-Marne
In the 18th century, the great French author and activist Voltaire (they called them philosophes in those days) spent several years living with his lover, the mathematician and physicist Émilie du Châtelet, at Château de Cirey. The place belonged to the Marquis du Châtelet, but he was hardly ever at home and was cool with his wife's choice of roommate. 
   Voltaire was one of the wealthy one-percenters back in his day, but he was also one of the key Englightenment figures who helped bring an end to European dynasties and the hereditary privilege of the nobility. He spent some time in the Bastille as a political prisoner, went into exile numerous times, and never chickened out when he saw an injustice to lend his famous voice to.
   The Château de Cirey is in the Haute-Marne region, which is also the place where the French nuclear establishment hopes to bury the nation’s high level nuclear waste near the town of Bure. The historical coincidence makes me wonder what Voltaire would say today if he could witness the modern outrage of the French nuclear legacy.
The French agency ANDRA (Agence National Pour la Gestion des Déchets Radioactifs) has a plan to create CIGEO (Centre Industrial de Stockage Géologique), the nuclear waste disposal/storage site that may be approved for the Haute-Marne region that is, for the time being, famous more for its champagne. ANDRA and CIGEO have vast resources at their disposal, so they have been able to publish a great deal of information in English and German, in addition to French, in order to give to the international community their view of the proposal, and of the long road over public debate and steps of government approval that they hope will lead to a green light in the year 2019. Readers can peruse their documents and make up their own minds as to whether they make a convincing case that the project will indeed be reversible and safe for an adequate length of time.

The CIGEO website presently declares:

The public debate and exchange phase concerning the CIGEO project, which began last May, has drawn to a close. Even if the public meetings that had initially been planned could not take place due to opponents of the project preventing anybody from speaking, the debate was still able to move forward, particularly on the Internet.

The ANDRA website describes the conclusion of the public debate period this way:

“Christian Leyrit and Claude Bernet emphasised that the debate had been rich, while expressing regret that public meetings had been prevented from taking place. More than 76,000 visits were registered on the public debate website, 1,500 questions asked, 500 opinions given and 154 stakeholder reports submitted. The departments of Meuse and Haute-Marne account for almost half of the stakeholder reports, 25% of the statements made and 18.5% of the questions asked… ANDRA will examine the proposal for a new project scope, integrating a "pilot" storage stage. This proposal is in keeping with that [sic] from the citizen's conference for a trial phase under real conditions.”

It seems like those pesky anti-nuclear activists spoiled the fun for everyone, but the debates went ahead as best as they could regardless. One may be tempted to say that these opponents lost their legitimacy by disrupting the process and withdrawing from it, but it could be the case that the very idea of debating CIGEO would be dignifying it in a way it doesn’t deserve. There are many once-common but now-repugnant cultural practices that we no longer debate. Society may be reaching a point at which nuclear waste management and the continued production of nuclear waste are coming to be regarded as slavery was in 1860s America. No self-respecting moral person could bring himself to even discuss the question of whether one group of people had the right to enslave another in chains.
The French anti-nuclear group Sortir du Nucléaire doesn’t have the same resources as ANDRA and CIGEO that would allow them to publish all of their messages in foreign languages, so I’m helping them out again with a volunteer translation of one of their press releases regarding the proposed pilot project at Bure. It is followed by another translation--an essay by a French nuclear industry insider who wrote recently, under a pseudonym, about the flawed assumptions behind the CIGEO project.
Translation 1

A “pilot project” for the burial of radioactive wastes: a plan to impose CIGEO (Centre Industrial de Stockage Géologique)* by incremental steps

ANDRA (Agence National Pour la Gestion des Déchets Radioactifs) has just released its conclusions regarding the public debate on CIGEO. In spite of strong objections, the deep geological disposal project is being maintained under the cover of a “pilot project.” This stratagem for getting a foot in the door for the project is unacceptable. It won’t make the problems disappear.

A way for CIGEO to get its foot in the door

In order to not lose face after facing numerous criticisms expressed during the public debate period, ANDRA proposes now to carry out the CIGEO project in small steps. The timetable has been extended, the application for authorization will now be done in two stages, and, above all, there will be an “industrial phase pilot project.”
While being labelled as “reversible,” this way of proceeding is no more than a way of slowly establishing the project while the construction of infrastructure continues apace. There is no guarantee that the wastes disposed of “experimentally” could ever be brought back to the surface. The residents near the site in Bure have already seen the “laboratory” transformed into an industrial center for geologic disposal. Now they will face another rude shock when they realize that the pilot project has turned CIGEO into a fait accompli.

The pilot project exists only to divert attention from the serious flaws of CIGEO

   It is certain that ANDRA is hoping to divert attention from the serious criticisms that were raised during the period of public debate. The problems extend over every aspect of CIGEO: the costs, the exact nature of the inventory of wastes, concerns of neighboring countries (Luxembourg and Germany), risks of fires and hydrogen explosions, ethical issues. No pilot project can make these issues disappear. In fact, recent problems at a similar site in New Mexico have confirmed that burial is an option that should be abandoned.
The pilot project will also not make ANDRA’s lies fade away. The geothermic potential of the Bure site is another factor that cannot be ignored. This risk in itself is enough reason to cancel the project.
The conclusions that should have been made after the debates are the following:

1.     We must definitively abandon the CIGEO project by first withdrawing it from the law on energy transition.
2.     We must break the impasse over the issue of radioactive waste burial.
3.     We must cease the transformation of the area into a monoculture of the nuclear industry.
4.     We must stop the production of nuclear waste.

It is not the nuclear wastes that should be buried but rather the CIGEO project itself.

*translator’s note: The public debates have made ANDRA realize that public acceptance hinges on convincing the public that this is a reversible storage project and not a permanent disposal project. The terms are as charged with significance as the terms pro-life and pro-choice in the debate over abortion. ANDRA would like to convince the public that if there is trouble down in the hole, people of the future will be able to safely retrieve the wastes and figure out another way to deal with them—as if bringing them back up and guarding them above ground for 100,000 years would be a “solution” that we could feel good about. CIGEO now has a new definition: centre industriel de stockage réversible profond de déchets radioactifs en Meuse/Haute-Marne.

A document which goes well with the press release above is an essay published by a Swiss group called Appel de Genève II. The document is significant because it is written under a pseudonym by a whistleblower from inside the French nucleocracy. I have translated the first three paragraphs that explain his professional qualifications and his reasons for speaking out. I haven’t translated the rest of the essay because it supports many of the same points in the argument made by Jean-Pierre Petit which I translated previously. In particular, the main concern is that the waste will continue to generate heat, which will denature the containers in unpredictable ways and turn the tunnels into ovens. Furthermore, no one can guarantee that underground water flow, humidity and the geological state of the site will remain unchanged over 100,000 years. 
Translation 2

Appel de Genève II
February 12, 2014

The CIGEO deep geological disposal site for radioactive waste in Bure : How the adventurism of the nucleocrats risks an unprecedented disaster that could one day be called a crime against the biosphere.

by Hans Zumkeller

Let me introduce myself. I have worked for a long time for the CEA (Commissariat à l'énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives) in the thermal section. This involves working with everything related to the production of steam, turbines, and their connections to alternators. My responsibilities also included securing heat removal of reactor cores in case of an emergency shutdown. I also participated in studies concerning the circulation of sodium coolant in fast neutron reactors. My title is chef de service, but I don’t have responsibilities in the neutronic field, the nature of irradiated materials, their embrittlement, reprocessing, the behavior of new fuel types, etc. My knowledge as a graduate of one of the prestigious French Grandes Ecoles gives me an ability to manage problems which is above that of a simple technician.
What makes me different from some of my colleagues is that I have a natural curiosity which led me to acquire a breadth of knowledge beyond my official duties that covers several, but not all, domains.
Everyone will immediately understand that I could write this only under a pseudonym. Several colleagues have views identical to mine or close to them, but they stay silent. It is rare that we speak directly about these things among ourselves. At our level, as important and responsible specialists in the industry, problems are evoked in veiled terms and jokes. Prudence is essential.


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:


M'aider, Mayday, May Day

The international distress call, derived from the French for "help me," resembles the synonym for International Workers’ Day, and both senses apply to this May Day message.
I’ve been reading a lot of distressing messages about anti-nuclear bloggers getting harassed by trolls, security agencies and offended corporate lackeys who slap them with frivolous lawsuits. Although I am completely sympathetic to their messages, I’m beginning to wonder if people are expecting too much to be achieved by independent blogging. Should we be surprised that the strong are picking on the most isolated targets? Predators always try to separate the strays from the herd and pick them off first.
It’s alarming to hear that people are giving up their jobs and financial independence, or taking refuge in a foreign country, in order to continue blogging. I hope no one will take this the wrong way because I’m writing this out of concern for their well-being. I just have to ask whether this degree of sacrifice is necessary. If one person is having trouble, there are others who can take over for a while. Move the message to a different place, written by new people, and make it a game of whack-a-mole for opponents and keep them off balance. The anti-nuclear movement is wide and deep, and it has a long history. Hundreds of books and documentaries critical of the nuclear industry have been published. They are not banned. There are numerous NGOs and political parties with anti-nuclear policies that need the support of working folks who can contribute a bit of their disposable income. These groups are not banned, either, in most countries. They are not harassed or targeted in frivolous lawsuits because, thanks to the support of their members, they are too big to mess with. They can afford legal defense. Furthermore, their opponents don’t want the bad publicity that would come from trying to silence a high-profile group.
Political involvement matters, unless you believe, like Russel Brand, that some sort of passive rejection of the system will lead to its overthrow and everything will be just fine afterwards. The Green Party of Canada, for example, is the only Canadian party that is anti-nuclear (not just against nuclear subsidies like the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP). However, even the Greens’ policy can be turned if there is enough pressure from the “environmental pro-nuclear” crowd. On April 29, 2014, the Green Party did in fact post a pro-nuclear proposal (not yet passed) for a change in energy policy that would allow for "inherently safe" nuclear technology. If anti-nuclear people want to oppose this, they have to join up, raise funds, recruit supporters, get involved in forming policy, and of course vote.
So there’s a downside to being a lone wolf, as either an individual or a single NGO. Eventually, this movement of atomized voices has to coalesce into a force that can change legislation. 
   The lone wolf can’t easily bring down a moose, and in fact, it’s likely the moose will crash his skull if he tries. Better to hunt in a pack. And since it’s May Day, I’ll mention what workers achieved through collective action in the mid-20th century. There were no blogs in those days. Workers stayed at work but gave up a bit of their wages for union dues, then let the union fight for change in the political arena. The heroes were the unsung heroes who didn’t write the songs and the speeches. They were willing to be anonymous and subsumed into something bigger than themselves. In Canada, the province of Saskatchewan had a socialist premier in 1944 who established North America’s first single-payer universal health care program. Pretty soon the program was so popular it was supported by mainstream parties and turned into a national program.
But don’t take any of this too seriously. This is just a blog.

Established anti-nuclear groups, most of which pre-date blogging. They may need donations more than they need bloggers echoing their message.

Institute of Radiation Safety BELRAD (Assistance for Chernobyl Victims)