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Expert Insights on Decommissioning France’s Spent Fuel Reprocessing Facility

Michael Madsen

Today, around 70 per cent of France’s electricity is generated from 56 nuclear power plants (NPPs). All of the spent fuel from these reactors, and some from other countries, is reprocessed and partially recycled at La Hague, a site in the country’s northern Cotentin Peninsula.

After 35 years of operation, La Hague’s first reprocessing facility, UP2-400, was shut down in 2003 and is being decommissioned — a project which is expected to take decades. To better understand how this project is progressing and the challenges involved in decommissioning a facility like UP2-400, we spoke with Eric Delaunay, Senior Vice President of End-of-Lifecycle Operations at Orano, the majority French state-owned company tasked with ensuring that the site is safe and suitable for future uses.

“In the future, robotics will increase productivity, enhance safety for workers, and improve working conditions and motivation for our staff.”

­— Eric Delaunay, Senior Vice President, End-of-Lifecycle Operations, Orano, France

Q: What are some of the implementation challenges faced by the UP2-400 decommissioning project and how do they compare to the decommissioning of other major nuclear facilities, such as NPPs?

A: The main challenge faced by the UP2-400 decommissioning project is the presence of radioactive deposits and contamination in a vast proportion of the shut-down facilities. In an NPP, the removal of spent fuel and a full system decontamination removes more than 99 per cent of the initial radioactivity present in the NPP. Only the reactor pressure vessel and its internal equipment are still significantly radioactive. In a reprocessing plant such as UP2-400, it is a little different. Each piece of equipment and each room is contaminated with a level of radioactivity, and these components need to be retrieved and conditioned before dismantling can take place. This means that the reprocessing plant’s safety functions need to be preserved during most of the decommissioning project, whereas in NPPs, safety classes and systems can be reduced once defuelling is complete and the spent fuel pool has been emptied.

Q: What are the main operational and strategic decommissioning risks facing the project and what is being done to manage them?

A: The main strategic risks are cost overruns and delays in completing the project, since delays generate additional costs. Delays can be caused by a variety of operational risks covering all aspects of the project. The two most significant are, firstly, a lack of knowledge concerning the initial radiological condition of the high activity cells and equipment; and, secondly, challenges related to career development and staff retention. To mitigate the first risk, we have pursued a very comprehensive characterization programme that significantly reduces uncertainty concerning the condition of the reprocessing plant and its cells for several years. In the meantime, we have tried to manage the human resources challenge with a range of actions, including involvement in regional and national training programmes, a proactive recruitment policy, the continuous training of our staff to facilitate versatility and mobility in the organization, and innovation in decommissioning practices to improve the working environment.

Q: The UP2-400 decommissioning project began some 20 years ago and may be expected to continue for several more years. How has innovation in technology affected the project over time and what future technological developments do you think will create the greatest impact?

A: Over the past 20 years, the most significant technological changes have been related to digitalization at all levels of the project. Digital technologies have evolved in three ways, in relation to power and efficiency, cost, and diversity. Twenty years ago, virtual models were complex and costly to develop, virtual reality technology was limited, and smartphones and tablets did not exist. In the past few years, these technologies have evolved to such an extent that they now bring real and measurable benefits to our activities and have completely transformed and improved processes in our organization. In the future, robotics will increase productivity, enhance safety for workers, and improve working conditions and motivation for our staff.

Q: Sustainability and circular economy principles are of growing importance in the nuclear industry. What impact do these principles have on decommissioning activities at La Hague?

A: A challenge for us when considering circular economy principles is that we are decommissioning facilities that were built forty to fifty years ago and that were not designed with any circular economy considerations. However, since creating an entire division in our company dedicated to the decommissioning of our own nuclear facilities in 2008, Orano has been engaged in closing the nuclear industrial cycle and liberating disused buildings for future reuse for 15 years. We also focus on the minimization of waste generation at all stages of the decommissioning process, and we increasingly reuse equipment and recycle materials. Recent regulatory changes in France have also opened the door to recycling metal from decommissioned nuclear facilities for reuse within the nuclear industry.

Q: What are the main socio-economic impacts of the decommissioning work at La Hague and how do you see your responsibility to the local community?

A: Decommissioning activities represent roughly 20 per cent of the overall activity and socio-economic impact of the La Hague site, which also hosts two operating spent fuel recycling plants. Orano’s Normandy sites are major employers and sources of revenue for the local community. Orano’s annual spending represents over €850 million per year, of which more than 70 per cent stays in the region of Normandy. Orano la Hague has also established a partnership with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Cherbourg Cotentin to train and employ local workers. In 2023, Orano’s sites in the Cotentin area will recruit 500 people, 20 per cent of whom will work on decommissioning. Furthermore, 200 work-study trainees will be hired for periods of one to three years.

Q: How does the IAEA’s work support the decommissioning activity at La Hague and how can international collaborative activities better support decommissioning projects?

A: Our decommissioning project is very intensive and requires us to focus on project delivery. However, it is also a long-running endeavour that benefits from the innovations and experiences of others. The IAEA’s support on decommissioning and environmental remediation provides a unique forum to exchange and learn from others, including trends and innovations that could support our activities, such as digital technologies, robotics, training and competence development. For example, ongoing developments in the Technical Meeting on New and Emerging Technologies to Advance Decommissioning Projects is of particular interest to us and we expect that such initiatives will prevent the duplication of development efforts.


April, 2023
Vol. 64-1

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