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“What happens when something needs repair in there?” I ask.
“Right here,” he demonstrates. Next to the window are a pair of handles that manipulate two long mechanical arms that stretch across the room. There are eight windows placed around the 2500-square-foot receiving space so that every remote corner can be reached. Right beneath us, on the other side of the glass, is a set of tools fitted for the mechanical arms, including — incongruously — a paintbrush, apparently used for dusting.
“You should see those guys work the handles,” says our guide. “It’s amazing what they can do. We should have brought someone down to show you.”
IN PARIS WE TALKED with Jacques Besnainou, a cheerful vice president of recycling, who modestly claimed that France is only moving ahead with what America originally invented. “Glenn Seaborg [the Nobel Prize winner and one-time head of the Atomic Energy Commission] discovered the solvent that would extract plutonium after a long effort in 1944,” Besnainou tells us. “The technology hasn’t changed much since.”
Still, it’s hard to avoid those cat-that-ate-the-canary smiles. When I mention Yucca Mountain, they almost turn sympathetic. “Why would anyone dig a hole in a mountain to bury material that is valuable for recycling?” asks Besnainou. “You recycle household garbage. Why not reprocess spent fuel? We’re calling these spent fuel assemblies ‘the new uranium mines,’ there’s so much fuel potential in there.”
Face it, the French are now miles ahead of us. Nuclear electricity is the country’s third largest export, behind only wine and agricultural products. Natural gas imports are less than half that of Germany and England. Carbon emissions are 20 percent below the rest of the continent. Signs in Paris direct you to recharging stations for electric cars. Nuclear power is keeping the whole economy afloat.
When the French government was selling nuclear power to the public in the 1970s, they had a slogan: “We don’t have any oil, but we have plenty of ideas.” In America for the past thirty years, we’ve lived by a different slogan: “We may not have any ideas, but we’ve got plenty of coal.”