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The management of nuclear waste

Published on 28 June 2016

​The management of radioactive waste in France is covered under the Act dated 28 June 2006. The CEA is involved on two fronts: as a nuclear operator, it is responsible for managing the waste it generates, and as an R&D player, it leads research on the treatment, conditioning and long-term behaviour of waste.

​From a historical viewpoint, the nuclear industry was one of the first to be concerned about the future of its waste and to investigate solutions for its management and disposal. There are currently several waste disposal facilities fully operational in France. Other waste disposal options are being studied to check their feasibility on an industrial level. This issue of national relevance is managed by the public authorities and governed by French law.

Management of radioactive waste
produced by the CEA

Most of the radioactive waste generated by the CEA results from its dismantling operations, while the remainder is produced by its R&D activities. As a nuclear operator, the CEA is responsible for managing its waste. There are many different types of waste which are managed through approximately 160 waste treatment facilities available at the CEA centres.

Its strategy is based on using the existing waste storage and disposal facilities whenever possible.

  • Very-low-level waste (VLLW) and short-lived low- and intermediate-level waste (SL-LILW) produced by the CEA is transferred to the specific disposal facilities located in Morvilliers and Soulaines  (Aube department) respectively.
  • The CEA ensures the interim storage of its long-lived intermediate-level waste (LL-ILW) and high-level waste (HLW) on its centres until a final repository is available.

Pending this final disposal solution, the CEA is carrying out several programmes to retrieve and condition legacy waste. It also continues to build and/or ensure the operational maintenance of interim storage facilities.

Management of radioactive waste in France

About 90% of the nuclear waste (in volume) produced in France has already been provided with a final disposal outlet. These storage and disposal facilities are managed by Andra (French radioactive waste management) on an industrial scale. Very-low-level waste (VLLW) is sent to the Morvilliers site (Aube department) for disposal, while short-lived low- and intermediate-level waste (SL-LILW) is sent to the Soulaines surface disposal centre (also in the Aube department).

Long-lived intermediate-level waste (LL-ILW) represents 3% of the total nuclear waste volume and 4% of the total radioactivity, whereas high-level waste (HLW) only represents 0.2% of the total nuclear waste volume, but 96% of the total radioactivity*. This waste currently has no final disposal outlet. It is conditioned and stored by their producers pending the availability of a specific final repository. In the long term, this waste will be placed in a deep geological repository for final disposal. Cigeo is the name of this deep geological repository project under the responsibility of Andra.

* Other radioactive waste (VLLW, SL-LILW and LL-LLW) represents about 97% of the total waste volume and less than 0.04% of the total radioactivity.

CEA R&D programmes
on radioactive waste

The Act of 28 June 2006 currently establishes the main research orientations for radioactive waste management. This law defines three complementary areas of research and investigation, with the CEA being mainly involved in two of these areas.  

  • Separation and transmutation of minor actinides which is under CEA responsibility. This involves separating and then transforming the most radiotoxic elements so they can be transmuted into less radiotoxic elements with shorter half lives. This research is carried out by the CEA in line with studies investigating transmutation options in Generation IV fast reactors which are capable of transmuting minor actinides. The CEA has coordinated the research led by several public organisations (Andra, the CEA, CNRS and universities) and the industry (Areva and EDF) to assess the industrial feasibility of implementing such technologies. A report summarising the results of this research was submitted to the French government in late 2012.
  • Waste disposal in a deep geological repository (Cigeo project in the Meuse/ Haute-Marne departments) which is under the responsibility of Andra. This involves building an industrial-scale disposal facility, with the deep geological repository having been chosen as the reference solution for long-lived intermediate- and high-level waste, as stipulated in the act. In the field of R&D, the CEA is taking part in studies on the long-term behaviour of waste packages in deep geological conditions.
  • Interim storage of radioactive waste, which has been entrusted to Andra.

Contrary to the 1991 Act which provided for the very first research orientations for such waste, the 2006 Act covers much more ground than these three subjects. Its scope has been greatly extended. It no longer only encompasses long-lived high-level waste, but nuclear materials in general and a global overview of the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle. This act also defines the government program for the French waste management policy along with its basic principles and deadlines.

Within this scope and outside the three above-mentioned areas of research, the CEA carries out R&D programmes on the treatment, conditioning and long-term behaviour of waste packages to support both waste producers and Andra.

Long-lived high-level waste (LL-HLW)
Long-lived high-level waste (LL-HLW) is stored in cells closed with thick concrete lids. © P.Stroppa/CEA

Waste conditioning
Short-lived low- and intermediate-level waste (SL-LILW) packaged in drums © P.Stroppa/CEA

Artist's impression of the Cigeo deep geological repository by Andra
Artist's impression of the Cigeo deep geological repository by Andra © Andra

Pellets designed for minor actinide transmutation studies
Fabrication of pellets in the Atalante facility at Marcoule to be used in minor actinide transmutation studies © A.Gonin/CEA