Lessons from Nuclear Waste, Applied to eWaste


Things were going very well until the late 80s when another nuclear issue surfaced that threatened to derail their very successful program: nuclear waste.

French technocrats had never thought that the waste issue would be much of a problem. From the beginning the French had been recycling their nuclear waste, reclaiming the plutonium and unused uranium and fabricating new fuel elements. This not only gave energy, it reduced the volume and longevity of French radioactive waste. The volume of the ultimate high-level waste was indeed very small: the contribution of a family of four using electricity for 20 years is a glass cylinder the size of a cigarette lighter. It was assumed that this high-level waste would be buried in underground geological storage and in the 80s French engineers began digging exploratory holes in France's rural regions.

To the astonishment of France's technocrats, the populations in these regions were extremely unhappy. There were riots. The same rural regions that had actively lobbied to become nuclear power plant sites were openly hostile to the idea of being selected as France's nuclear waste dump. In retrospect, Mandil says, it's not surprising. It's not the risk of a waste site, so much as the lack of any perceived benefit. "People in France can be proud of their nuclear plants, but nobody wants to be proud of having a nuclear dustbin under its feet." In 1990, all activity was stopped and the matter was turned over to the French parliament, who appointed a politician, Monsieur Bataille, to look into the matter.

Bataille discovered that the rural populations had an idea of "Parisians, the consumers of electricity, coming to the countryside, going to the bottom of your garden with a spade, digging a hole and burying nuclear waste, permanently." Using the word permanently was especially clumsy says Bataille because it left the impression that the authorities were abandoning the waste forever and would never come back to take care of it.

Fighting the objections of technical experts who argued it would increase costs, Bataille introduced the notions of reversibility and stocking. Waste should not be buried permanently but rather stocked in a way that made it accessible at some time in the future. People felt much happier with the idea of a "stocking center" than a "nuclear graveyard". Was this just a semantic difference? No, says Bataille. Stocking waste and watching it involves a commitment to the future. It implies that the waste will not be forgotten. It implies that the authorities will continue to be responsible. And, says Bataille, it offers some possibility of future advances. "Today we stock containers of waste because currently scientists don't know how to reduce or eliminate the toxicity, but maybe in 100 years perhaps scientists will."

Nuclear waste is an enormously difficult political problem which to date no country has solved. It is, in a sense, the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry. Could this issue strike down France's uniquely successful nuclear program? France's politicians and technocrats are in no doubt. If France is unable to solve this issue, says Mandil, then "I do not see how we can continue our nuclear program."