France’s ‘underground Chernobyl’ moves step closer

Some say "nuclear dustbin" others say "underground Chernobyl", but either way what is arguably France's most controversial building project moved nearer to becoming a reality this week.

France's 'underground Chernobyl' moves step closer
Photo: AFP

One of the most controversial building projects in France is a step closer to seeing the light of day after the French parliament gave the green light to push ahead with facility that will store dangerous nuclear waste deep underground.

The site located 500 metres under the village of Bure, around 200km to the east of Paris and home to around 100 residents, has been hotly contested for over a decade.

Locals and environmental groups have fiercely protested against the planned facility – dubbed an “underground Chernobyl” by one opposing Green MP – but this week it moved a step closer to reality.

Deadly landslide at planned French nuclear waste site

MPs in the French parliament (albeit a half-empty one) followed senators by giving the green light to a bill that essentially allows for the project to continue as planned deep under the ground below Bure.

That drew an angry response from opposition MPs, locals, and environmental groups who have blasted the project as a dangerous “nuclear dustbin”.

France is heavily dependent on nuclear energy and the site at Bure is required to house around 80,000 cubic metres of the most dangerous material produced by France’s 58 nuclear reactors.

The waste will be stored in special barrels within a network of underground areas around 300km in length. They would be stored there for 100 years before the site would be closed and sealed.

The planned nuclear waste landfill site, named Cigeo (Centre industriel de stockage geologique), has been criticized for the impact on the environment but also for its price tag, that could be up to €35 billion.

The group “Bure Zone Libre” is the main opposition but complain their voices have not been heard.

Opponents have held numerous protests and earlier this month police had to remove dozens of militant protesters from a site in a nearby forest, where work was taking place.

To appease locals France's nuclear waste agency Andra is already spending €60million ($80m) every year to support local community projects in the sparsely populated area. 

The project was hit by tragedy earlier this year when a landslide left one dead at an underground laboratory.


But despite the vote in parliament this week the the underground repository scheme, which is due to begin in 2025 is not done and dusted just yet.

It is currently undergoing a period of testing with scientists still gauging whether the waste can be stored safely underground.

The Meuse/Haute Marne Underground Research Laboratory aims to study the geological formation of the area to work out if this would be a safe place to store France’s highly radioactive waste.

Once testing has taken place it will be down to the government to have the final say on whether site at Bure goes ahead and only after a public inquiry has taken place.

In short there is still a long way to go.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


France turns off oldest nuclear plant… but not everyone is happy

France's oldest nuclear plant was switched off on Monday, ending four decades of output that built the local economy but also fuelled cross-border controversy. While environmentalists are happy with the shut down, not everyone is.

France turns off oldest nuclear plant... but not everyone is happy
The Fessenheim nuclear power plant. Photo: AFP

The second and last reactor of the plant at Fessenheim in eastern France went offline at 11pm, said state-owned power company EDF.

Anti-nuclear campaigners in France, Germany and Switzerland – who for years have warned of contamination risks, particularly after the catastrophic meltdown at Fukushima, Japan in 2011 – welcomed the closure.

But for Fessenheim Mayor Claude Brender, closing a plant that is “in good working order and has passed all the security tests” was “absurd and incomprehensible.”

“It's a tough blow for the local economy, that's for sure,” the mayor told BFMTV


At the end of 2017, Fessenheim had more than 1,000 employees and service providers on site.

Only 294 people will be needed on site for the fuel removal process until 2023, and about 60 after that for the final disassembly.

It is estimated that shutting down the reactor will put the livelihoods of 2,500 people in the tiny Alsatian community at risk, directly or indirectly.

In Fressenheim, people expressed anger over the decision, fearing for the future of the workers that would lose their jobs.

“What pain, it is inhuman what is happening,” the CGT labour union tweeted as the first switches were flicked.

“We want to die,” they tweeted.


The government has said workers will be transferred to other EDF sites. But many would have to leave their families behind.

Safety failures

The reactor in Fessenhaim opened in 1977 and had outlived its projected 40-year life span by three years.

While there is no legal limit on the life span of French nuclear power stations, EDF has envisaged a 40-year ceiling for all second-generation reactors, which use pressurised water technology.

France's ASN nuclear safety authority has said reactors can be operated beyond 40 years only if ambitious safety improvements are undertaken.

In the 1990s and 2000s, several safety failures were reported at Fessenheim, including an electrical fault, cracks in a reactor cover, a chemistry error, water pollution, a fuel leak, and non-lethal radioactive contamination of workers.

In 2007, the same year a Swiss study found that seismic risks in the Alsace region had been underestimated during construction, the ASN denounced a “lack of rigour” in EDF's operation of the plant.

A pro-nuclear energy group protests outside the Greenpeace headquarters in Paris the day France switched off the Fessenheim nuclear power plant. Photo: AFP

.. not done before 2040

Former president Francois Hollande pledged to close Fessenheim – on the Rhine river – but it was not until 2018 that his successor Emmanuel Macron gave the final green light.

The procedure to finally shut down the plant, four months after the first reactor was taken offline, started hours earlier than scheduled, and will be followed in the coming months and years by the site's dismantlement.

After its disconnection from the power grid Monday, it will be months before Fessenheim's reactors have cooled enough for the spent fuel to be removed.

That process should be completed by 2023, but the plant is not expected to be fully dismantled before at least 2040.

12 more closures announced

Without Fessenheim, France will still have 56 pressurised water reactors at 18 nuclear plants  generating around 70 percent of its electricity.

Only the United States, with 98, has more reactors, but France is by far the world's biggest consumer of nuclear energy.

In January, the government said it would shut 12 more reactors nearing or exceeding the 40-year limit by 2035 – when nuclear power should represent just 50 percent of the country's energy mix – in favour of renewable sources.

At the same time, EDF is racing to get its first next-generation reactor running by 2022 – 10 years behind schedule – and more may be in the pipeline.

Future plans under consideration for Fessenheim include turning it into a site for recycling low-level radioactive metal, or a biofuel plant, both promising to bring back hundreds of jobs, but neither expected to materialise for several more years.