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.