Other countries have progressively adopted the French approach of building, step by step, series of standardized plants. But what makes the French approach rather unique in the western economies is its comprehensiveness. It was really a systemic (some would say “holistic”) approach, developing the whole fuel cycle in parallel to and in cohesion with the nuclear power plant construction program.
While EDF and Framatome were busy building the plants, the CEA, then its industrial subsidiary COGEMA (now AREVA NC), established in 1976 as a fully owned subsidiary of CEA, was exploring and mining uranium, building the EURODIF enrichment plant and expanding the capacity of the La Hague reprocessing plant. CEA developed the vitrification process to immobilize the high level waste extracted from the spent fuel and facilitate first their storage then their disposal. This vitrification technology is still today mastered by very few countries, to say the least.
Furthermore, as already mentioned, the French had the vision of a long-term “sustainable” nuclear power and the CEA was leader in developing the fast breeder technology. After the Phenix demo plant, EDF and some European utilities ordered in 1977 Superphenix, a 1200 MWe Prototype FBR to be built on the Creys-Malville site on the Rhone River. Even though prematurely shut down for political reasons in 1998, Superphenix remains the largest such breeder plant to have operated anywhere.
By 1985, when it became clear that the nuclear development in the world was much less fast than what was anticipated in the 70s, the early deployment of breeder plants was no longer urgent. The French decided then to recycle the plutonium extracted from the spent PWR fuel assemblies and previously earmarked for the FBR program in the PWR plants as “MOX” fuel. The firs unit, St Laurent B1, was loaded with MOX in 1987 and now, 20 units are routinely using 30% MOX assemblies at each reload. The capacity of the La Hague plants allowed to recycle also spent fuel for other customers: a closed cycle being recognized as a very efficient way to manage the spent fuel both in consideration to fissile resources preservation and in consideration to efficient final waste depositories.
The only unresolved issue that remained is the final disposal of long-lived radioactive waste. This topic has been dealt with systematically by public authorities under the responsibility of the French parliament. A first law voted in 1991 for duration of 15 years has been achieved to organise research on 3 major axes: separation and transmutation, geological disposal, interim storage. After evaluation of the results (done by an independent body, the “Commission Nationale d’Evaluation” – CNE) a new law was voted (28 June 2008) and establish the main orientations for the management of all the nuclear matters and for nuclear wastes, through a national plan to be updated every 3 years.
The closed fuel cycle is considered as the reference way for managing spent fuel. All the radioactive wastes have to be properly conditioned and must find a specific storage. Standardization of the packaging through “universal canisters”, both for vitrified and compacted residues is part of an efficient solution. For high activity and long (HAVL) nuclear wastes, final geological disposal is presented as the nominal option.
2012 will be the date for a technical review among the different options for transmutation solutions. These solutions are in relation with the decision to promote the conception then the realisation of a prototype of a fast neutron plant which will have a capacity to burn actinides.
For geological disposal, the 2006 law confirms the general orientations already taken but introduces now the concept of reversibility. The formal demand of authorisation for the storage will be analysed in 2015 and beginning of exploitation is expected in 2025.
All these modalities remain under the control of the French Parliament; scientific evaluation continues to be done by the CNE. Special attention is paid to public debate through the creation of local committees for public information and follow-up.