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23rd Oct 2021

Activists slam French uranium going to Russian dump

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Even as president Emmanuel Macron is reigniting French nuclear plans amid surging gas prices, activists from Greenpeace have protested against French uranium exports to Russia

Protesters blocked the entrance of nuclear firm Orano's HQ in Châtillon, a suburb of Paris, on Tuesday (12 October) using bogus nuclear-waste drums and waving "Russia is not a nuclear dump" banners.

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  • The uranium is transported to Seversk where it is supposed to be recycled for re-use in France, but Greenpeace says the material will be dumped there "indefinitely" (Photo: Wikipedia)

The majority French state-owned firm earlier this year exported 1,000 tonnes of reprocessed uranium to Siberia, according to a report published by the Greenpeace NGO.

It did so after having earlier discontinued the exports in 2010 due to public pressure

And Orano admitted the new shipments.

The Greenpeace report detailed that on 20 January and 12 February, two shipments of reprocessed Uranium left the French harbour in Le Havre in a Russian ship named Kapitan Lomonosov bound for St. Petersburg.

The uranium was then transported to Seversk, a closed-off city in Siberia with several nuclear reactors and a large uranium-enrichment facility, where it is supposed to be recycled and re-enriched for re-use in France or Russia.

EDF, France's biggest nuclear power company, has not restarted shipments yet, but it also entered a tentative agreement with Tenex in 2018, a subsidiary of Russian firm Rosatom, to recycle uranium at the same site.

"Russia doesn't need reprocessed uranium from France," Cécile Génot from Greenpeace France told EUobserver, citing Russia's large existing uranium reserves, which are much cheaper.

This was confirmed by Ecodefense, a Russian environmental agency.

"When it comes to the import of uranium tails to Russia from Germany and other European countries, at least 90 percent of these wastes remains in Russia forever," Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman for Ecodefense, told EUobserver.

"To rid themselves of some of this cumbersome waste, they [Orano] have chosen to resume the sale," Génot added.

Although Greenpeace has not been able to confirm this, Génot said that the French nuclear companies would probably buy "expensive uranium" in return.

Meanwhile, the exported uranium will be stored as nuclear waste at Seversk "indefinitely", Génot added.

The storage site in Seversk is closed off to outsiders, but Greenpeace used satellite imagery to determine the uranium was being "stored [in drums] out in the open, without any protective measures to slow their degradation."

Both EDF and Orano in 2010 halted exports to Seversk due to public pressure and environmental reasons, citing an "unsatisfactory effluent treatment process."

The report follows a call by 10 EU ministers, spearheaded 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 years presidential elections.

Most nuclearised countries opt for direct dry storage of spent uranium, but France reprocesses it for future enrichment.

According to French law and the nuclear industry "reprocessed uranium" doesn't count as "nuclear waste" but is instead a "recyclable material" that will be used again.

Illusion?

But Greenpeace says this is an "illusion", because for it to be a recyclable material, it would need to be reabsorbed.

Russia has cheaper uranium available. And the only nuclear power plant in France suitable to use the "re-enriched reprocessed uranium" consumed only 600 tonnes between 1994 and 2013.

"France currently has 33,000 tonnes stored in hangars in Pierrelatte, a commune in South-Eastern France - a stock that increases by nearly 1,000 tonnes per year," Greenpeace's Génot said.

Orano said it was exporting the reprocessed uranium for recycling and re-use, but it is sitting on a stockpile that it has no reasonable hope of using and that nobody needs.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently found that the commercial demand for depleted uranium is currently much less than the amounts generated.

In 1984 the Mont-Louis, a cargo ship that sank off the coast of Zeebrugge, was found to carry reprocessed uranium - it was later discovered that the French nuclear industry had been exporting uranium to Russia since 1972.

Greenpeace has demanded the French government, as Orano's majority shareholder, puts a halt to the exports and reclassifies reprocessed uranium as nuclear waste.

The Nuclear Safety Authority, a French government agency, has said it will not respond, because this concerns "a commercial agreement between two private parties".

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