Even as President Emmanuel Macron relaunches French nuclear plans amid skyrocketing gas prices, Greenpeace activists have protested against French uranium exports to Russia
Demonstrators on Tuesday October 12 blocked the entrance to the headquarters of the nuclear company Orano in Châtillon, in the suburbs of Paris, using fake cans of nuclear waste and waving “Russia is not a nuclear dumping ground” banners.
The predominantly French public company exported 1,000 tonnes of reprocessed uranium to Siberia at the start of the year, according to a report published by the NGO Greenpeace.
It did so after previously halting exports in 2010 due to public pressure
And Orano admitted the new shipments.
The Greenpeace report details that on January 20 and February 12, two shipments of reprocessed uranium left the French port of Le Havre aboard a Russian ship named Kapitan Lomonosov bound for Saint Petersburg.
The uranium was then transported to Seversk, a closed town in Siberia with several nuclear reactors and a large uranium enrichment facility, where it is supposed to be recycled and re-enriched for reuse in France or Russia.
EDF, the largest French nuclear power plant, has not yet resumed shipments, but it also concluded an agreement in principle with Tenex in 2018, a subsidiary of the Russian company Rosatom, to recycle the uranium on the same site.
“Russia does not need reprocessing uranium from France,” Cécile Génot of Greenpeace France told EUobserver, citing Russia’s existing large reserves of uranium, which are much cheaper.
This has been confirmed by Ecodefense, a Russian environmental agency.
“When it comes to importing uranium tailings into Russia from Germany and other European countries, at least 90% of this waste remains in Russia forever,” said Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair of Ecodefense, at EUobserver.
“To get rid of some of this bulky waste, they [Orano] have chosen to take over the sale, ”added Génot.
Although Greenpeace was unable to confirm this, Génot said French nuclear companies would likely buy “expensive uranium” in return.
Meanwhile, the exported uranium will be stored as nuclear waste at Seversk “indefinitely,” added Génot.
The Seversk storage site is closed to foreigners, but Greenpeace used satellite images to determine that the uranium was “stored [in drums] in the open air, without any protective measures to slow down their degradation. ”
EDF and Orano both stopped exports to Seversk in 2010 due to public pressure and environmental reasons, citing an “unsatisfactory effluent treatment process”.
The report follows a call from 10 EU ministers, led by France, to include nuclear energy in the EU’s guidelines for green investments – the “EU taxonomy”.
Macron is also expected to approve six new nuclear reactors ahead of next year’s presidential elections.
Most nuclear countries opt for direct dry storage of spent uranium, but France is retiring it for future enrichment.
According to French law and the nuclear industry, “reprocessed uranium” does not count as “nuclear waste” but is rather a “recyclable material” which will be reused.
But Greenpeace says it’s an “illusion” because for it to be a recyclable material, it would have to be reabsorbed.
Russia has cheaper uranium. And the only nuclear power plant in France capable of using “re-enriched reprocessing uranium” consumed only 600 tonnes between 1994 and 2013.
“France currently has 33,000 tonnes stored in hangars in Pierrelatte, a town in south-eastern France – a stock that is increasing by nearly 1,000 tonnes per year,” said Génot of Greenpeace.
Orano has said he is exporting reprocessed uranium for recycling and reuse, but he is sitting on a stockpile that he has no reasonable hope of using and that no one needs.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently found that commercial demand for depleted uranium is currently well below the amounts generated.
In 1984, the Mont-Louis, a freighter that sank off the coast of Zeebrugge, was carrying reprocessed uranium – it was later discovered that the French nuclear industry had been exporting uranium to Russia since 1972.
Greenpeace has called on the French government, as Orano’s majority shareholder, to end exports and reclassify reprocessed uranium as nuclear waste.
The Nuclear Safety Authority, a French government agency, said it would not respond because it is “a trade deal between two private parties.”