No More Breeding for French Reactor?

PARIS--Once the flagship of the French nuclear industry and now an exorbitant research tool, France's Superphénix breeder reactor faces a battle for its life. Two French ministers are dueling over the reactor's fate, which could be decided over the next few days by French Prime Minister Alain Juppé.

Twenty years ago, Superphénix had the allure of a perpetual motion machine. It's a fast breeder reactor, which uses a core of uranium and plutonium surrounded by a blanket of nonfissile uranium-238. Fast neutrons emitted from the core transform the uranium-238 into fissile plutonium-239, which can be used as reactor fuel. As the reactor generates power, it breeds more fuel than it consumes. But the multibillion-dollar reactor--named after the mythical Egyptian bird that rose from its own ashes--has turned out to be a turkey. Fired up in September 1985, Superphénix was shut down 2 years later because of leaks in its coolant system and has not produced a single kilowatt of commercial power since 1990, when a turbine hall roof collapsed after a heavy snow.

Since then, France has abandoned its plans to use fast-breeder reactors to produce electricity. The government has instead been using Superphénix to study how to better incinerate plutonium and other heavy radioactive isotopes produced as waste in conventional reactors. Last week, however, France's Council of State, an independent advisory body, suggested that the government rescind a decree to restart the reactor, which is down for maintenance until June. The council called for a public inquiry on whether to formally permit the reactor to be used for research.

The recommendation drew sharp protests from the French nuclear industry. "If Superphénix doesn't start up again in June, it will delay our research program," said a spokesperson for France's Atomic Energy Commission. "This research is not being questioned at this point," he argued. France's industry minister Franck Borotra stepped into the debate on the industry's side, arguing that the reactor should be started on schedule.

Others are unconvinced. "I am asking that there be a new open public inquiry on Superphénix as a research tool," environment minister Corinne Lepage told the French daily newspaper Le Monde yesterday. According to Lepage, the inquiry could lead to a decision to permanently ice Superphénix. Juppé has said he will decide in a few days whether to accede to the council's request for an inquiry.