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Nuclear power: selective separation and recycling

General view of the AREVA treatment plant at the Marcoule site

Activities and expertise/Recycling records

AREVA has a very large technological and industrial lead in recycling used nuclear fuels, making it the preferred partner in this field worldwide. Its activities are to implement processes to recycle 96% of reusable materials (95% uranium and 1% plutonium) from used fuel and safely condition the 4% remaining waste.

The treatment consists of separating the various components of the used fuel:

  • The uranium (95%) and plutonium (1%), given their recycling into new fuels (with enriched uranium and MOX fuel).
  • The ultimate waste (4%), in terms of its packaging in a sturdy matrix, with as low a volume and radiotoxicity as possible.

This solution, which enables effective end-of-cycle management for nuclear fuels has been chosen by France and by countries for which optimum use of nuclear power is a priority.

MOX: a growing success

Used in Germany since 1972, MOX fuel was introduced to French nuclear plants in 1987. 21 French nuclear power plants are loaded with MOX fuel.
Since the 1980s, other countries such as Belgium, Switzerland and the United States have also begun using this recycled fuel. Seventy reactors around the world have used MOX to produce electricity.

  • Industrial maturity
    General view of MELOX MOX fuel production plant

    Facilities for treating reprocessed uranium (uranium from processing or UREP), treating foreign nuclear waste at La Hague, via MOX fuel... Through AREVA, France is at the cutting edge in terms of nuclear waste recycling and has reached an industrial maturity which lends itself well to use elsewhere.

    A complete, integrated industrial structure for the back end of the fuel cycle

    Review of the main benefits which make up AREVA's industrial tool:

    • AREVA's La Hague site, with a licensed used-fuel recycling capacity of 1,700 tons per year, has been working at full capacity since 1995.
      This activity notably comprises:
      • separating usable materials from non-recyclable end waste (fission products and minor actinides) through a series of mechanical and chemical processes,
      • conditioning uranium and plutonium for subsequent recycling,
      • conditioning end fuel waste and technological waste. 
    • The MELOX plant is the world’s only large-capacity MOX (mixed oxide) fuel production plant in operation. The plant produces MOX fuel assemblies for light water reactors in various countries (France, Japan, Germany, etc.).
      Produced from a mix of uranium and plutonium oxides, MOX fuel makes it possible to recycle plutonium from used fuels collected during the first step in recycling, which is performed at La Hague.
      Since the AREVA Cadarache plant stopped production in July 2003, all AREVA MOX fuel has been manufactured on the MELOX industrial site.
      AREVA is the world leader in MOX fuel manufacturing. This fuel has been in use for more than 35 years, and currently fuels 10% of the world’s light water reactors (pressurized water reactors and boiling water reactors).

    The nineties: recycling programs and &uot;MOX-fueled&uot; reactors

    The recycling business is based on the production of MOX fuels and mixed uranium and plutonium oxide fuel. Recycled into a MOX fuel, one gram of plutonium enables the generation of as much electricity as one ton of petrol. This recycling procedure has been around since the nineties...

    • EDF has been using MOX since 1987. Today, 20 EDF 900 MWe units are loaded with MOX and eight more reactors may be licensed for MOX fuel.
    •  Japan will soon be loading MOX assemblies into some of its reactors for the first time. Japanese electric utilities plan to load 16 to 18 additional reactors with MOX between now and 2010. The first AREVA MOX fuels have already been delivered to Japan.
    • In Europe, MOX fuels have been in use for over 20 years (since 1972 in Germany, where ten reactors are loaded with MOX today, since 1984 in Switzerland and 1995 in Belgium).

    Recycling industry: an area of global technological leadership for France

    AREVA is at the cutting edge in terms of nuclear waste recycling, the group is now exporting its technology:

    • Japan is currently building a used fuel recycling plant at Rokkasho-Mura. SGN, the AREVA engineering subsidiary, is applying specifically adapted AREVA/CEA (Atomic Energy Commission) technologies in this project.
    • The United States and Russia have shown a clear interest in recycling technologies that would allow a rapid conversion for civil use of large quantities of weapons-grade plutonium recovered in the dismantling of nuclear weapons stockpiles: &uot;Burning&uot; converted weapons plutonium in reactors to generate electricity is a way to see that it is not used again for military purposes. AREVA, SIEMENS and Russia's MINATOM are carrying out studies for the construction of a MOX fuel fabrication plant in Russia. The U.S. Congress has approved $200-million in funding for this project.
    • In the United States, AREVA joined with Duke Energy, one of America's largest nuclear power producers, to submit tender proposal to the Department of Energy (DoE) for the construction of a MOX fuel fabrication plant to supply MOX fuel to reactors in the United States. The procedure is taking its course in the United States.

    Why treat foreign nuclear waste at La Hague?

    The transformation in France of plutonium obtained from recycling used fuel of foreign origin at La Hague has many advantages:

    • It contributes to the development of an industrial activity in France
    • It allows the plutonium to be conditioned in the most appropriate form for transport back to its country of origin
    • It conditions waste in a suitable form

  • An economical solution
    Used fuel treatment plant at AREVA's La Hague facility

    Reprocessing and recycling nuclear used fuel incurs costs but this expenditure is limited in comparison with the resultant economic resources.

    Limited costs

    The cost of a kwh (kilowatt hour) includes all downstream related charges of the fuel cycle:

    • Used fuel storage and reprocessing
    • Conditioning at La Hague
    • Future storage of ultimate waste
    • Future dismantling of the La Hague facilities.

    The total amount of these charges is only about 10% of the total production cost of a kwh, or less than 2 French centimes.

    Studies prove it

    • An international study (OECD/NEA, 1994) concluded on the basis of internationally applicable hypotheses that the cost of the fuel cycle would be about 10% higher with reprocessing and recycling than with an open fuel cycle. At the present time, that is equivalent to a difference of about 0.4 centimes in the cost of a kWh.
    • According to a report of experts (M.Charpin, B.Dessus, R.Pellat) submitted to the French Prime Minister on July 28, 2000, replacing the recycling policy with one of disposing used fuel without reprocessing would lower the total cost per kwh by only 1% over the period examined in their study. The latter approach would run counter to the prevailing French philosophy and to French regulations, not only for nuclear activities, but also for other industries, which are aimed at minimizing the amount of ultimate waste that must be permanently stored. At the La Hague plant in particular, costly processes are used to limit to a strict minimum (0.1 to 0.2%) the quantity of plutonium remaining in the ultimate wastes.

    At present, the industrial cost of reprocessing is stable and based on firm contracts. On the other hand, disposing of used fuel directly, without reprocessing, has never been done on an industrial scale. To discontinue reprocessing and recycling would be to take an approach of waiting and deferring operations whose costs are not yet well defined.

  • A sustainable solution
    Interim plutonium storage area

    Selective separation allows the recovery and reuse of 96% of the used fuel. These procedures represent an optimized ecological solution within the management of nuclear used fuel.

    Savings in terms of primary energy sources

    • The uranium and plutonium present in one ton of used fuel have the same energy value as 20,000 tons of oil.
    • A single gram of recycled plutonium in MOX fuel will produce as much electricity as one ton of oil.
    • Reprocessing and recycling the fuel that EDF unloads from its reactors every year saves about 20% of the natural uranium resources needed to fuel French reactors.

    Optimized ultimate waste management

    For each category of waste, there are stable, internationally approved conditioning techniques for long-term storage.

    Reducing the volume and toxicity of waste

    • The volume of ultimate wastes is reduced by a factor of five and radiotoxicity is lowered by approximately a factor of ten.
    • Plutonium, which is the major source of radiotoxicity in used fuel, is reused rather than buried.

    The commitment to &uot;zero impact&uot; for waste

    Today, the impact of waste from nuclear facilities on the population is much lower (by at least a factor of ten) than the precautionary limits in the regulations set by the international radiological protection agencies.

    This concern has prompted AREVA to make a commitment to zero impact in its activities.

  • Foreign waste
    Storage area for technological waste in AREVA's used fuel recycling plant

    The recycling of foreign nuclear waste is regulated by contracts and by law. In general, no foreign ultimate waste is stored in France.

    Contracts for the return of ultimate waste

    Contracts currently in force at La Hague were signed at the end of the seventies and have been enforced since for EDF in the UP2 plant and for foreign power companies in the UP3 plant. The plants were first built and reached full capacity in 1996.

    Returning waste first required agreement, by the various safety authorities, to any conditioning specifications for the waste and for implementation of the necessary equipment. Specifications for vitrified products were approved in France in 1988 and then overseas in 1989 and 1990.

    The necessary cooperation, verifications and agreements reached in collaboration between the industrialists, authorities and French and foreign governments concerned, led to the first returns of vitrified fission products in 1995.

    These first returns were to Japan and Germany in 1996, followed by a second time to these two countries in 1997 and to Belgium in 1999-2000.

    The law and foreign waste management

    The law of December 30, 1991, was drafted to define and govern, in particular, the process of creating storage for high level and long-term waste. Article 3 of the law prohibits the disposal of foreign waste in France. This law reiterates a principle provided for in the UP3 contracts and governmental agreements.

    At the request of the public authorities and AREVA's clients, accountability for the waste has been put in place. A truly analytical record, it enables the volume of waste to be returned in each category to be allocated to each client. It is audited by Bureau Veritas (commissioned by the clients) and by APAVE (commissioned by the Energy Ministry's Energy and Raw Materials Department).

    The volumes of waste allocated to foreign clients are stored in the La Hague reprocessing plant prior to shipping by virtue of the contracts and the law of December 30, 1991. By definition, no foreign waste is therefore present in French stores (ANDRA's facilities).