Rebound of nuclear plants raising worries over waste

Friday, January 30, 2009

BRUSSELS — BRUSSELS: As France presses ahead with building more next-generation nuclear reactors, new evidence emerged Friday to suggest that industry and governments may be unprepared to handle the increasingly toxic waste that will result.

Highlighting the importance of the technology in France, both as its main source of electricity and as a major export industry, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France announced late Thursday that Électricité de France, Europe's biggest power producer, was awarded the contract to develop a second atomic reactor using next-generation technology.

EDF beat competition from the gas and power company GDF Suez to lead the construction at an existing nuclear site at Penly in northern France.

Areva, the company based in Paris that designed the so-called EPR, says the new system will generate far more electricity more safely than previous reactors, is easier to construct, and will last longer.

Areva, the world's biggest reactor maker, also says the EPR - which is expected to generate more than 1,600 megawatts, making it more powerful than any other reactor in commercial use - will use about 15 percent less uranium and produce 30 percent less waste.
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But an anti-nuclear group said that information it gleaned from industry reports - publicly available but which have received little attention so far - show that waste from the EPR will be more radioactive by a factor of seven because more uranium is burned up. That will make it more expensive to handle and store safely, according to Greenpeace, which provided the details on Friday to the International Herald Tribune.

"Despite the French government's global marketing of the EPR as cheap and safe, the evidence proves otherwise," said Rianne Teule, an international nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace who is based in Amsterdam.

The next wave of reactors "poses an ever-increasing burden on people's budgets and danger to their health, now and far into the future," Teule said.

Patricia Marie, a spokeswoman for Areva, said the claim by Greenpeace was "grossly inaccurate." She said the waste would be 15 percent more radioactive at the most.

There are currently 58 reactors in operation in France. There are no EPRs in operation anywhere in the world, but the first is under construction at Olkiluoto, an island in the West of Finland, and the second in Flamanville, in northern France.

Teule said the evidence about the radioactivity of the waste was drawn from a report by Posiva, a waste disposal company owned by Finnish nuclear operators, and from the Swiss organization Nagra, which oversees management of nuclear waste.

Teule said the waste would pose greater dangers to workers from higher radiation doses during transfer and storage than current waste. She also said the waste would need to be stored for longer in areas above ground, where it is potentially exposed to terrorists.

Those factors, among others, would increase the overall cost of nuclear energy - costs that Teule said were not properly accounted for by industry and governments.

There are no long-term facilities for disposing or burying high-level nuclear waste anywhere in the world, although Posiva is digging a tunnel at Olkiluoto in anticipation of final approval for storing waste a quarter of a mile underground.

U.S. authorities have sought to put high-level waste inside Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, but that plan is foundering because of local opposition.

Spokeswomen for Posiva and Nagra said they were unable to give any immediate comment about the reports.

Hans Riotte, the head of the Radiological Protection and Radioactive Waste Management Division at the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris, said waste from the EPR, although smaller in volume, would be more radioactive than existing forms of high-level waste because it would be denser. But Riotte was unable to say whether it would be more radioactive by a factor of seven, as Greenpeace contends.

Riotte conceded the waste would have to be stored above ground longer to cool, but said that waste-handling and storage procedures could be adapted to deal with much more toxic waste without much added expense.

"Any financial impacts are likely to be relatively small," Riotte said.

Marie, the spokeswoman for Areva, said the company "was confident that all costs have been taken into account" for construction and operation of EPR reactors.

Greenpeace has vowed to oppose construction of the new plant in France, but has not said how it would pursue that goal.

Areva reported rising sales this week for 2008 as its uranium mining and reactor construction businesses benefited from increasing demand for nuclear power.

But any reports about the cost, or safety, of its EPR model still are a sensitive matter for the company, which is competing to become the designer of reactors for the next generation of nuclear plants in the United States and elsewhere.

Problems at the EPR site in Finland mean the reactor already is badly overdue and vastly over budget, even though it was designed to have a shorter construction period than previous models.

The site has been plagued by water-logged concrete, faulty welds and flawed pipes, delaying the reactor start date by at least three years and raising costs by roughly 50 percent.

Two more EPR reactors, called Taishan 1 and 2, are slated for construction in China. Areva said the design was also being used by Électricité de France and the large German utility, E.ON, bidding to refurbish the fleet of aging reactors in Britain.

Areva also is vying sell the technology to the United Arab Emirates as part of a project led by Total and GDF Suez.

Matthew L. Wald contributed reporting from Washington

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