Superphénix Tagged for Scrap

In his maiden policy pronouncement in Paris today, new French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said that the troubled French Superphénix nuclear reactor would be "abandoned." Jospin's Socialist-led government includes members of the Green Party, among them Environment Minister Dominique Voynet, who before the election denounced the $10.5 billion reactor in Creys-Malville as a "stupid financial waste" and promised to shut it down.

The 1200-megawatt Superphénix, owned by a consortium of French, German, and Italian utilities, was planned 20 years ago as the world's largest fast breeder reactor. But the project was dogged by technical problems and has produced power only sporadically. In 1994, the government agreed to downgrade it for use as a research reactor for disposing of plutonium waste from other reactors, and the conversion began 6 months ago.

Any attempt to terminate the project will be met with tough resistance, says a policy official, who predicts "a hot debate" on what the shutdown would mean to France's long-term nuclear energy plans. He said that France would have to reconsider its strategy for "the entire fuel cycle," including its plans for disposing of long-lived actinides, another byproduct of nuclear power generation.

This week, demonstrators were already protesting the potential loss of nuclear-related jobs. Some defenders of Superphénix also cite a disputed study by the previous government, which claimed that premature closure of the project could cost $10.5 billion. "There is no figure ... which makes any sense at present," says Michael Schneider, Paris director of the World Information Service on Energy, a nongovernment group. "But there's mutual interest among the partners in closing the plant down. In commercial terms, it's been a disaster," he says.