A series of excavations below the Champagne-Ardenne region could see France become the first country in the world with an operational nuclear waste repository built underground. Andra, the French nuclear waste agency, has tunnelled into the compacted clay rocks half a kilometre beneath the region to create a final resting place for the radioactive by-products of nuclear fission. Currently, the facility is only in the early stages of development, although there are already a series of passages that are roughly the same dimensions as an underground rail tunnel. The main structures are composed of sturdy concrete, reinforced with steel ribs and incorporate enormous hundred-metre bore holes drilled into the surrounding rock.
France is already a leading proponent of commercial nuclear power, drawing three quarters of its electricity from fission reactors. Reliance on nuclear technology for energy means that the country has a lesser degree of dependency on fossil fuels when compared to other Western nations, like the US and the UK. Using fission power also makes it easier for a country to reduce carbon emissions. However, as a trade off for these advantages, nuclear proponents must contend with the (so far) unsolved issue of nuclear waste. If Andra’s planned storage facility goes ahead, it could put the French nuclear power industry one step closer to sustainability, ahead of the rest of the world.
The most important part of creating a safe nuclear waste repository is ensuring that radioactive material is contained in such a way that it will never affect the surrounding environment. The facility proposed in France must meet such standards, though Gerald Ouzounian (Andra’s head of international affairs) assures us: “What we did first was to demonstrate that safety can be achieved through a repository in this clay formation”.
Tests to guarantee the safety of drilling into the clay formations have been in development since 2006. Nuclear waste can generate high temperatures, and so these experiments have been used to simulate the effects this might have on the clay formations. The tests have so far proved helpful for the development of the repository, though there is an inherent degree of security in the requirements for any planned waste storage facility in the country. French law stipulates that any scheme for underground storage must be retrievable. That way, should future generations find a better way of dealing with the waste, they can recover any materials that have been stored and process them using newer technology.
Gerald Ouzounian has high hopes for the scheme: “It is a project which is of national interest.” By increasing spending on the local area and funding community projects, the team behind this creative solution have gained support from inhabitants of the area around the repository. Ouzounian believes that nuclear power has benefitted the nation as a whole, and this is just another step towards improving it.
The prospect of underground storage facilities may eventually come to the UK as well. According to Ouzounian, there are sites in England which are equally well suited to accommodate such a structure. The clay that the French tunnels have been dug from is called Callovo-Oxfordian, named after the city of Oxford, where deposits of the mineral are plentiful.
Should the repository in France prove successful, how would it influence other countries and their willingness to adopt nuclear power?