AREVA la Hague, on the cutting edge of used fuel recycling
Ever since its beginnings in the 1950s and 1960s, the nuclear industry has had to ponder the question of used fuel management. With the creation of the la Hague treatment plant in 1966, the French nuclear industry acquired a sustainable solution for meeting this need. The la Hague site has evolved over the years and is now – as it has always been – the global benchmark in the field of treatment, a vital step in recycling.
AREVA la Hague, a major player in used nuclear fuel recycling
The treatment of used nuclear fuel is a long production cycle which lasts about 10 years. It begins when the used fuel is removed from the nuclear reactors where it produced power. The fuel is then packaged in “casks”, which are steel containers weighing 110 metric tons (for 10 metric tons of materials), so that it can be safely shipped. Then it is ready to be shipped to the AREVA la Hague site some 25 kilometers from Cherbourg in the Manche Department, where it will be treated. And so begins a great adventure…
The complete story of the great transformation of used nuclear fuel:
- Upon arrival at the la Hague site, the fuel is removed from the cask. This intricate operation is performed completely remotely using specialized robots and remote manipulators.
- The fuel is cooled by taking a bath in a pool – for an average of five years! During that time, beneath nine meters of water in the storage pool, the fuel temperature drops as its radioactivity decreases through a natural process.
- After this first bath, the fuel is cut up into small pieces for its second bath in a nitric acid solution to dissolve its nuclear material. The recyclable material is separated from the non-recyclable material and waste in a chemical facility.
- At the end of these operations, 96% of the material can be recycled. Of this, 95% is uranium and 1% is plutonium.
- The remaining 4% consist of fission products, also called final waste.
The uranium and plutonium are separated in turn for treatment in a series of complex chemical operations. The uranium will become uranyl nitrate and the plutonium will be converted into plutonium oxide. The latter will be used to produce fresh fuel called MOX – mixed oxides of uranium and plutonium – to reduce our natural uranium requirements by 25%. Meanwhile, the uranium is held as a strategic inventory pending re-enrichment.
What happens to the final waste?
- This waste cannot be reduced further; it is calcined and mixed with glass, then melted and poured into stainless steel canisters, offering safe and stable immobilization for several tens of thousands of years.
If the waste comes from French reactors, it is stored at the AREVA la Hague site in buildings constructed for that purpose pending transfer to the final disposal facility to be built under the Cigéo Project.
If it comes from abroad, it is returned to the country of origin, as required by French law.
AREVA la Hague, Number 1 in nuclear materials recycling
Today, the la Hague treatment site is the world leader in the field of used fuel recycling and has strong international business. In addition to the volumes treated, it is a model of technology for a number of countries as well as a place of constant innovation.
An innovative site that serves as inspiration for other countries
The technologies developed and managed by AREVA la Hague are an inspiration to a number of foreign countries. A number of visits organized to discover the know-how deployed at the site, and some 2,200 visitors were received in our facilities in 2015.
The AREVA la Hague site is the global benchmark for the construction of other recycling centers around the world. The used fuel treatment plant at the Rokkasho-Mura site in Japan is the fruit of technology transfer from AREVA. It is scheduled to enter service soon. China, which is building the world’s leading nuclear power program, has also opted to build used fuel treatment facilities suited to its domestic requirements. It might choose AREVA’s technology perfected at the la Hague site for its future treatment plant.
The United States and Russia are also interested in the systems deployed by AREVA to convert plutonium from former defense programs for civilian uses.
The cold crucible: an example of continuous innovation in the service of performance
What is vitrification?
Vitrification is performed in a melter called a crucible in which fission products and glass frit are brought to a very high temperature.
After more than 25 years of research and development orchestrated by AREVA la Hague and the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique (CEA), a new vitrification method for final waste was born: vitrification by induction in a cold crucible. This innovative technology makes it possible to process a wider variety of waste. How ?
Cold crucible induction vitrification in a few figures:
- 25 years of research and development
- 2010, the first year of service
- 1,072 canisters of vitrified waste produced
La Hague, an intensively monitored site
Due to the nature of its operations and the volumes of fuel treated, the la Hague site, where 5,000 people work, is intensively monitored at all times.
Safety is an integral component of all of AREVA la Hague’s processes
Reducing the risks of a nuclear accident and ensuring the safety of employees and of infrastructure are constant concerns for the AREVA la Hague site. The measures taken are part of a continuous improvement initiative that has been carried out for several years. Every year, site personnel participate in emergency drills to raise awareness of the risks and to be ready to cope with critical situations.
The Site and Materials Protection Brigade includes response personnel trained in the site’s specific hazards (fire, chemical or radioactive leaks, etc.). The human and equipment response resources are equivalent to those of a city of 30,000 inhabitants! In addition, the AREVA la Hague site is monitored by the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), which regularly performs inspections.
Zero impact: environmentale impacts close to that of natural radioactivity
AREVA is planning for the future in Normandy
Based in Normandy for 50 years, the AREVA la Hague site is the global benchmark in used nuclear fuel treatment and recycling. The group is the leading employer in the Cotentin Peninsula, with nearly 4,800 employees of varying backgrounds, whether in nuclear safety, engineering, facility operations, mechanical manufacturing (welders, boilermakers, machining), dismantling or cleanup.
AREVA’s presence in the Cotentin Peninsula is led by nine entities with a total of approximately 4,800 employees (under open-ended or fixed-term contracts).
- AREVA NC la Hague: ≈ 3,000 employees
- AREVA Temis, based in Valognes, Beaumont-Hague and Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte ≈ 370 employees
- AREVA Projects, based in Equeurdreville ≈ 700 employees
- Palova: logistics platform at Valognes combining TN, LMC and Mainco ≈ 200 employees
- STMI and its subsidiaries, based in Beaumont-Hague ≈ 500 employees
In 2017, the nine entities hired 300 employees under open-ended contracts and 200-250 for work-study positions.
Business: visibility through 2040
La Hague’s treatment and recycling operations are part of a commitment between AREVA and EDF until 2040. The volumes involved are defined in specific agreements. The most recent agreement, signed in 2015, gives the site renewed visibility and workload, with annual production of 1,100 metric tons until 2022 and an unprecedented level of investment.
2015-2022: a major capital spending plan
Considerable capital expenditure has been committed to ensuring the safety and long-term operation of the facilities in recycling as well as in dismantling.
1.6 billion euros in capital expenditure over an eight-year period, i.e. approximately 200 million euros per year.
- 150 million euros per year on the construction of facilities dedicated to legacy waste retrieval and packaging
- 50 million euros per year for cleanup and dismantling operations
Close-up on major capital spending projects
● Continuity of site operations
The New Fission Production Concentration Unit Project (NCPF) will replace existing evaporators with new equipment at the two extraction facilities for uranium, plutonium and fission product separation.
Another major project is the construction of new extensions to the storage units for vitrified waste canisters (EEVLH2) and for compacted metal waste (E-ECC).
● Facility safety
As part of the post-Fukushima supplementary safety assessments (SSA), AREVA continues to install emergency management centers at its main sites; they will be used to manage a crisis with complete autonomy for 48 hours, regardless of the magnitude of the seismic event or extreme weather. Objective: to bring together the resources needed to restore fundamental safety functions under extreme circumstances. Several milestones have been met at the la Hague site: startup of the Storage Block (practically a safe, where mobile remediation equipment and vehicles are kept), receipt of “hardened core” equipment (mobile pumps, filtration and distribution cradles, generators) and verification of the proper operation of the cooling water feed system for the site. In 2017, construction of the Command Block will begin and remediation tests will be completed.
● Waste retrieval and packaging (RCD)
Construction continues on facilities for the retrieval of legacy waste produced by the treatment operations of the UP2-400 plant at la Hague, currently undergoing dismantling. This waste had been stored on site pending the availability of an appropriate packaging and disposal method.
● Special fuel treatment (TCP)
The project to industrialize special fuel treatment operations using existing facilities aims to offer operators and customers proven and competitive solutions in the back end of the fuel cycle.
● Long-standing support for regional economic development
For decades, AREVA has been involved in numerous economic development programs in Normandy at the regional, departmental and local levels. Objective: to support jobs in the nuclear industry as well as in other industries present across the region.
An example at the regional level is Nucleopolis, the regional nuclear industry cluster in Normandy, which AREVA supports by contributing skills. The group also sponsors the Fast Forward business accelerator (FFWD) and the first recipients of the regional Exc’op label aimed at identifying supplier skills in operational excellence at the la Hague site.
Did you know?
AREVA la Hague has just received the Excellence Award from the Japan Institute of Plant Maintenance.
AREVA provides financial aid for business creation through AREVADelfi, which helped create 185 jobs up to 2016 (e.g. Allures Yachting and Easybike). This entity has temporarily stepped aside for the Manche revitalization plan, which provides guaranteed loans and supplies skills to eligible companies.
The Manche revitalization plan has a budget of 507,000 euros which will be injected into the local economy to create jobs over a period of three years.
Through all of these programs, AREVA plans to remain an important economic player in Normandy and to take positive action for the future through forward-looking investments in the region.