PARIS — For more than a year I’ve been giving a speech about nuclear energy that proclaims, “The French keep all their nuclear waste from thirty years of producing 80 percent of their electricity in one room at Le Havre.”
Last week I got to stand in that room. Somehow I had imagined it was a bit smaller — maybe the size of a modest visitor’s center. Actually it’s about the size of a basketball gymnasium. Still, it’s one room. Scattered around the concrete floor are about 40 two-and-a-half-foot manhole covers stenciled with the logo of Areva, the French nuclear reactor company. The lids are so tightly sealed, with no visible handles, that I had to wonder whether they could be removed.
“They’re magnetized,” explained our guide. “There’s an overhead crane that lifts them off. Beneath them is another set of seals with screw-tops and handles.” Beneath that, stacked vertically in small rings to a depth of about 20 feet are two-foot-long canisters containing fission products, the most intensely radioactive of what is commonly mislabeled “nuclear waste.”
You’d think people would be interested in this stuff back in America. While I was touring Areva’s major facilities, the French company announced a proposed uranium enrichment plant in Idaho Falls, a $2-billion project that will be an important link in America’s nuclear revival. Yet the story didn’t even make Associated Press. A couple of Idaho papers ran the press release but inevitably paired it with a manifesto from the Snake River Alliance that such a temple to idolatry will never be built in their Garden of Eden.
SO IT GOES. I’ve spent almost three years trying to find a publisher for a book on nuclear power and global warming, called Terrestrial Energy. Two publishers — one conservative, one liberal — bought the manuscript and then decided they just couldn’t publish it — too touchy a subject, too declasse. Even conservatives have trouble embracing the technology. Just let Ralph Nader have his way on this one and concentrate on debunking global warming. Finally, a small progressive house called Bartleby Press picked it up off this site and will bring it out next September.
After years of trying to convince New York editors that nuclear power has a future, touring France’s three-decade-old infrastructure was like a trip through Narnia. One Areva brochure begins: “In a gigantic nuclear explosion, nuclear energy made the curtain rise on the history of the universe. From distant stars to the earth’s core, it continues its constructive work. Man has learnt to master one nuclear reaction, fission, taming it into a clean and inexpensive energy.”
That’s the precise theme of my book. Nuclear energy is a perfectly natural phenomenon. It heats the center of the earth to 7000o F, hotter than the surface of the sun. We’re just borrowing it, as we do all things in nature. The crucial difference is that nuclear energy is so highly concentrated — 2 million times more powerful than burning coal and 20 million times more powerful than solar energy — that it leaves virtually no environmental footprint — just a couple of canisters beneath a concrete floor near Cherbourg. This is Greek to sophisticates from New York to New Mexico, all of them wringing their hands about global warming. In France, however, it’s boilerplate in marketing brochures.
And that’s why the French are sprinting ahead of us in bringing nuclear energy to the world. Areva is in the process of building new plants in Finland, China, and the United States. It is reprocessing all of Japan’s spent fuel. Its most spectacular success is at the MELOX plant in Avignon, where we toured Monday. There the French are taking thousands of tons of bomb-grade uranium that the Russians had stockpiled for weapons and “de-enriching” it down to reactor grade to be burned in American power plants. One out of every ten light bulbs in America is now powered by a former Soviet weapon. You’d think people would be dancing in the streets. Instead, all we get is press releases from the Sierra Club announcing how nuclear is a “backward energy policy.”
MAKE NO MISTAKE, nuclear material is powerful and dangerous stuff. At La Hague, just before we visited the storage gymnasium, we stood before a foot-thick window watching a 50-foot column of spent nuclear fuel being lifted through the floor of the receiving room like some giant benthic organism being raised from the deep.
“Why is the glass so yellow,” I asked our guide in one of those innocent questions that usually leads somewhere.
“It’s treated with lead so that it filters out most of the light,” he said. “It’s for radiation protection.”
“What’s the radiation coming out of that thing?” I asked, staring at what now looked like a sinister sea creature dangling behind the glass.
He consults for a moment with a nuclear scientist who only speaks French. “Une million millirads,” the answer comes back. “About a million millirads.”
Quick calculation. That’s 1,000 rems, about double the exposure you would have gotten by standing next to the atomic bomb when it exploded at Hiroshima. “No one has been in that room for fifteen years and no one will for decades to come,” says our guide. “They would be killed instantly.”
But we are standing 15 feet away — with the thick walls and lead-tinted glass between us.
“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.”