The La Hague plant on the tip of the Cotentin peninsula is the largest light water reactor [LWR] reprocessing plant in the world. COGEMA owns and operates two plants at la Hague in France with a total capacity of 1,600 tHM/year representing 52% of the world capacity : the two plants UP2 and UP3 reprocess spent fuels coming from nuclear power plants. Designed and constructed by SGN, a COGEMA subsidiary, and operated by COGEMA, the plant reprocesses spent fuel for Electricity de France (EDF) and twenty-seven other electric utilities (from Belgium, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, and Switzerland), recovering uranium and plutonium for military appplications and conditioning fission products waste. With the commissioning in 1990 of the UP3 plant and the upgrade of the UP2 plant, the total annual reprocessing capacity of La Hague amounted to 1,680 tons in 1996. To date more than 10,000 tons of fuel (for light water reactors) have been reprocessed at COGEMA-La-Hague.
Vitrification operations at La Hague began in 1989 and are in full operation. This process has been sold in the UK for the Sellafied plant and to the US DOE for the Hanford site. Highly radioactive waste consists primarily of fission products (strontium, cesium, etc.) and transuranics (neptunium, americium, etc.) which have been formed during fuel residence in the reactor. The waste is incorporated into a glass mixture and the vitrified product is poured into stainless steel canisters, which are temporarily stored in air-cooled dry wells.
Gaseous releases from the La Hague plant are identified and measured under the supervision of governmental authorities. Krypton 85, which represents the bulk of these releases, is measured directly and continuously in the stacks of the plant. Tritium, Iodine and Carbon 14 are also measured. A monitoring system installed in five surrounding villages (Jobourg, Digulleville, Gréville-Hague, Beaumont-Hague et Herqueville) also measures without delay concentrations in the plant environment.
In late 1998, following a green light and final checks by regulatory authorities DSIN, responsible for regulating nuclear transport, and OPRI which handles radioprotection, spent fuel shipment transportation from Cruas-Meysse to La Hague resumed. Shipments had been suspended in April 1998 after safety authorities reported ground contamination at the Valognes terminal near La Hague.
In mid-January 1997, the British Medical Journal published a study by two French scientists, Dominique Pobel and Jean-François Viel. The report warned of an increased risk of leukaemia for children who played regularly on beaches near the nuclear La Hague reprocessing plant, triggering local public concern. French Environment and Health Ministries commissioned an official epidemiological study of leukaemia around La Hague to be conducted by a high-level, ten-member team of experts. On 16 June 1997, the Secretary of State for Health requested OPRI (Office for Protection against Ionizing Radiation) to conduct an analysis of the marine environment (water, sediments, fauna, flora) around the sea discharge end of the effluent pipe of the La Hague plant. Measurements taken by OPRI near the beaches detected no radioactivity above the natural radioactivity level.
The clean-up project for the sedimentary zone located at the end of the liquid effluent discharge pipe provides for the recovery of sediments over an area of 1900 m2 and 20 cm thick. Sediments lay thirty meters under water, there will be collected by means of an underwater power shovel controlled from a surface platform and then deposited onto this same platform prior to being brought back to land and taken over by COGEMA.
In 1997 Greenpeace launched a major campaign in January calling for the shut-down of Cogema's La Hague nuclear fuel reprocessing plant. The target chosen by the activists was a marine pipeline that takes treated low-level liquid waste from the site out to sea. Although official figures show otherwise, Greenpeace claims the radiation affects nearby beaches. In June 2000, COGEMA filed a claim with the Public Prosecutor of the High Court of Cherbourg for damage to property belonging to others by Greenpeace.
Japanese power companies have their spent fuel reprocessed in France and Great Britain, under reprocessing contracts signed in the late 1970s. The ten Japanese nuclear operators signed reprocessing contracts with COGEMA in 1997. The services provided under these contracts terminate in 2000. Pending the operation of the Rokkasho-Mura reprocessing plant at full capacity, the Japanese power companies will have to find a solution for spent fuel management. They rely on the reprocessing capacities of the COGEMA plant at La Hague. Under the contractual commitments and the French law of December 1991, waste produced by spent fuel reprocessing, particularly vitrified waste, is shipped to Japan at the rate of one or two per year, over a ten-year period. The ships have been specially designed and are only used for the transport of nuclear materials.
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