France: The Nation Dominating Nuclear Waste

Kevin Anderson
April 7, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015


Fig. 1: Illustration of the process of fission. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

There are a couple of rumors about nuclear energy that cause people to dislike the energy source. Many people create fictitious statistics to steer others to be anti-nuclear energy. This includes the over exaggeration of how many people have died due to nuclear energy in the United States and, most commonly, that cooling towers release radioactive emissions into the environment. Another facet of nuclear energy that is routinely misunderstood is nuclear waste. People imagine thousands and thousands of yellow bins, marked hazardous, polluting the environment somewhere in the middle of the desert. Many anti-nuclear activists have completely exaggerated the amount and the dangerousness of the waste that nuclear power plants produce. Because of these activists, nuclear waste has gained a mysterious reputation that is not justified.

Interestingly, there are a handful of countries who handle and utilize their waste differently than others. France is the largest user of nuclear energy and has also mastered the process of recycling their nuclear waste. These two statistics are no coincidence. By not having to deal with nuclear waste politically, France has been able to build a large number of nuclear plants. If other nations would use their system, nuclear energy would be a great deal more prevalent.

What is Nuclear Waste?

As fuel assemblies are put into nuclear reactors, they consist of mostly just uranium or plutonium or thorium, oxygen and steel. After fission takes place, seen in Fig. 1., and the fuel is spent, the assemblies are removed. Due to the immense reaction that takes place, the contents of the assemblies have changed. The fuel (uranium or plutonium or thorium) is broken apart into smaller atoms called fission fragments. These fission fragments are turned into other metals. This assortment of metals have varying degrees of radioactivity and is considered nuclear waste.

How to Manage Nuclear Waste

When high level nuclear waste leaves a plant, it is usually transported nuclear waste facilities where it is contained and recycled. The waste consists of both the smaller elements, like cesium and rubidium, as well as other uranium and plutonium atoms. The unused uranium and plutonium is eventually filtered out to be reused and the waste consists of just other metals. This is what France does to reprocess the waste into usage fuel.

A large number of these metals are very valuable and can be used once they are no longer radioactive. This is why the waste is mostly stored in facilities and not simply buried in the ground. The facilities house the waste for roughly 50 years to wait out the radioactivity. After this time, the waste has reached low enough levels of heat and radioactivity to contain it in a less intensive manner.

Once at the facility, the waste produces two issues that must be combatted: radioactivity and heat. Water is one of the best solutions to handle the material. A couple of feet of water, shields the radioactive emissions from harming the surroundings. The water also contains the heat of the waste. In some cases where radioactivity is extremely strong, more dense materials, like concrete and steel, are used to shield the waste. [1] When managed properly, there is very little danger in the waste. However, maintaining that low level of danger is extremely expensive and still causes people to be fearful.

How France is Different

France is an aberration to the normal, nuclear utilizing, country. France has 56 different nuclear power plants working, which generates 76% of the countries energy. This number is humongous. The reason that France has been able to build so many power plants is because the people of France think of the benefits of the source of energy and not, simply, the negatives. Nuclear energy is not some scary, unknown contraption, like it is in the United States. [2] Another reason why France is able to use so much nuclear energy is because they recycle a large amount of their waste. By doing so, they do not need to dispose of all of the waste, as well as, do not need to acquire more fuel. France has mastered this process. [3]

Fig. 2: This is a generalized process of recycling nuclear waste. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


There are many factors that go into the decision on whether or not to utilize a nuclear power plant. There are many technical factors, as well as, many social factors. The United States is dealing with both. In order for countries to create more nuclear plants, it has to change the societal conception of nuclear energy and nuclear waste. They must also start trying to increase the amount of nuclear waste that is reprocessed. One of the biggest arguments against nuclear energy is that dealing with nuclear waste can be dangerous and costly. By minimizing the waste by recycling the fuel, this argument will not be very strong. France accomplished both of these and is reaping the benefits. While 100% of nuclear waste cannot be recycled, by reprocessing some amount, seen in Fig. 2., the idea of nuclear energy can change for the better.

© Kevin Anderson. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] D. Bodansky, "The Status of Nuclear Waste Disposal," Physics and Society 35, No. 1, 4 (2006).

[2] M. Schneider, "France's Great Energy Debate," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69, No. 1 (2013).

[3] K. Ling, "Is the Solution to the U.S. Nuclear Waste Problem in France?," New York Times, 18 Mar 09.