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EPR-waste seven times more hazardous

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Rianne Teule, Greenpeace International Nuclear Campaigner

Greenpeace has uncovered evidence that nuclear waste from the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), the flagship of the nuclear industry, will be up to seven times more hazardous than waste produced by existing nuclear reactors, increasing costs and the danger to health and the environment. This was revealed –one day after French President Sarkozy's decision to build a second EPR in France- in an exclusive story in International Herald Tribune (IHT).

The alarming evidence was buried in the environmental impact assessment report from Posiva, the company responsible for managing waste at the world's first EPR under construction at Olkiluoto in Finland ("Posiva's Expansion of the Repository for Spent Nuclear Fuel, Environmental Impact Assessment Report", 2008), and in EU-funded research (Nagra Technical report 04-08: "Estimates of the Instant Release Fraction for UO2 and MOX-fuel at t = 0").

This means that not only will spent nuclear fuel produced by the EPR be more dangerous than is acknowledged by the French nuclear industry, but also storage and disposal will be more expensive than the industry and governments proclaim, and will increase the overall cost of nuclear energy. The French nuclear companies Areva and EDF, which aggressively market the EPR as safe and cheap, have completely ignored the implications of the increased hazards," explained John Large, an independent nuclear consultant.

No appropriate waste facilities exist or are being planned in Finland, France, or any of the countries considering buying the EPR, including the UK, the US, Canada and India. In Finland the plans awaiting approval for burying the nuclear waste are inadequate for preventing interim and long-term health risks and will pass on huge financial liabilities to future generations.

"Nuclear energy is fast becoming the most expensive way to produce electricity and its highly radioactive waste poses an ever-increasing problem. Despite the French government's global marketing of the EPR as cheap and safe, the evidence proves otherwise," stressed Dr. Rianne Teule, Greenpeace International Nuclear Campaigner.

The EPR is designed to extract more energy from nuclear fuel than any commercially operating reactor (high burn-up), in order to maximise electricity output. This causes the amount of readily released radioactive substances in spent fuel to increase disproportionately. The storage of the hazardous waste will be more costly for a range of reasons including required greater distances between canisters increasing the repository size, more extensive and longer-term monitoring and increased security.

Another aspect of the high burn-up of the fuel was published by the British daily Independent on Sunday. The revelations –based also on the documents by the nuclear industry itself – calls into doubt repeated assertions that the new EPRs will be safer than the old nuclear power stations they replace. Instead those documents suggest that a reactor or nuclear waste accident, although less likely to happen, could have even more devastating consequences in future; one study suggests that nearly twice as many people could die.

Information in the documents shows that the EPRs produce very much more of the radioactive isotopes technically known as the "immediate release fraction" of the nuclear waste, because they could get out rapidly after an accident. Data in one report, produced by EDF, suggests that they would produce four times as much radioactive bromine, rubidium, iodine and caesium as a present-day reactor. Information in another – by Posiva Oy – indicates that seven times as much iodine 129 is produced. And material in a third, by the Swiss National Co-operative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste (Nagra), implies that they will give rise to 11 times as much caesium 135 and 137.

This happens because the reactors are designed to burn their nuclear fuel almost twice as thoroughly as normal ones. Independent nuclear consultant, John Large, says that this "changes the physical characteristics of the fuel" and increases the immediate danger if the radiation should escape. After comparing the consequences of an accident at the new EPR being built at Flamanville, Normandy with one at an existing reactor nearby, he found that, in the worst case, it would increase the number of deaths from 16,000 to over 28,000.

(See also "Too hot to handle: The truth of high burn-up fuel", Nuclear Monitor 671, 17 April 2008)

Sources: Greenpeace Press release, 31 January 2009 / Independent on Sunday, 8 February 2009
Contact: Rianne Teule, Greenpeace International Nuclear Campaigner, Van Walbeeckstraat 17, 1058 CG Amsterdam, The Netherlands