21 February 1998
- Other (None)
France abandons "fast breeder" nuclear reactor
France joins USA, Germany and Britain - leaving only Japan continuing
by Patrick Collins
The "Superphoenix" power plant, a 1240 MW sodium-cooled "fast breeder" nuclear reactor near Lyons in France, is to be closed after a very expensive and unsuccessful life. Construction started in December 1974; it operated at full power for the first time in December 1986; and since then it operated for only six months in total, being used finally for research.

Problems with the plant included a leak of liquid sodium, causing the plant to be closed for repairs lasting several years. A meeting in February chaired by French prime minister Lionel Jospin decided the "Superphenix" reactor should finally be scrapped.

Some readers may remember an experiment at school in which your chemistry teacher dropped a tiny piece of solid sodium into water: it reacts violently with the water, hissing and skidding about the surface. So you can imagine what happens when liquid sodium meets super-heated water due to a leak in the heat-exchanger! Hence "fast-breeder" reactors will never be a safe and economic source of electric power. Governments in the USA, Britain and Germany all learned this some years ago and gave up on this system - after spending many $billions. The French Government reported in 1996 that "Superphoenix" had cost 60 billion francs ($10 bn). It has also published an estimate that cleaning up the remains will cost another $2.5 billion.

France's decision therefore leaves only Japan still struggling with this energy source. The Japanese fast-breeder nuclear reactor "Monju" suffered a sodium leak a few years ago, causing it to be shut down for repairs ever since - amid a series of scandals in which the nuclear research organization Donen repeatedly falsified information. Like the nuclear industries of other countries they have learned that lying to the public is (understandably!) very damaging to public acceptance.

It's difficult to know the true cost of the "Monju" accident in Japan, but it's rumoured to be billions, and the plant may never be restarted. However, Donen has spent $50 billion to date, and is still funded at about $4 billion per year, so it may be some time yet before they face the truth that this particular technology is a dead-end. Still, after the French decision, Donen are presumably feeling rather lonely, and advocates of other energy sources can feel more hopeful of support in future.

As the Superphoenix announcement was made, an investment of $8 million for development of renewable energy sources in France was also announced by Secretary of State Christian Pierret, who said "This is a wise move which reaffirms France's commitment to a balanced energy policy".

This statement calls for some comment! Claiming that $12 billion wasted on a plant that only operated for 6 months in 20 years is "balanced" by spending 1/1,500 (0.06%) as much on a number of non-nuclear systems is some logic! It's a good example of the continuing dominance of energy policy by nuclear interests, to put it mildly.

By comparison, research on power from space receives perhaps $1 million/year around the world - implying that it is literally thousands of times less attractive even than "fast-breeder" reactors"! This is so far from the truth that it's laughable. Fortunately, despite the gross imbalance in funding, the tide is flowing against FBR and towards solar energy in all its forms, including SPS.
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Patrick Collins 21 February 1998
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