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By Angela Charlton

The Associated Press

SOULAINES-DHUYS, FRANCE » Deep in a French forest of oaks, birches and pines, a steady stream of trucks carries a silent reminder of nuclear energy’s often-invisible cost: canisters of radioactive waste, heading into storage for the next 300 years.

As negotiators at climate talks in Scotland plot how to fuel the world while reducing carbon emissions, nuclear power is a central sticking point. Critics decry its mammoth price tag, the disproportionate damage caused by nuclear accidents, and radioactive leftovers that remain deadly for thousands of years.

But increasingly vocal and powerful proponents — some climate scientists and environmental experts among them — argue that nuclear power is the world’s best hope of keeping climate change under control, noting that it emits so few planet-damaging emissions and is safer on average than nearly any other energy source. Nuclear accidents are scary but exceedingly rare — while pollution from coal and other fossil fuels causes death and illness every day, scientists say.

“The scale of what human civilization is trying to do over the next 30 years (to fight climate change) is staggering,” said Matt Bowen, of Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy. “It will be much more daunting if we exclude new nuclear plants — or even more daunting if we decide to shut down nuclear plants all together.”

Many governments are pushing to enshrine nuclear energy in climate plans being hashed out at the conference in Glasgow, known as COP26. The European Union, meanwhile, is debating whether to label nuclear energy as officially “green” — a decision that will steer billions of euros of investment for years to come. That has implications worldwide, as the EU policy could set a standard that other economies follow.

But what about all that waste? Reactors worldwide produce thousands of tons of highly radioactive detritus per year, on top of what has been left by decades of harnessing the atom to electrify homes and factories around the world.

Germany is leading the pack of countries, mainly within the EU, standing firmly against labeling nuclear as “green.” Meanwhile, the Biden administration supports nuclear power. China has a dozen reactors under construction. and even Japan is promoting nuclear energy again, 10 years after the disaster at its Fukushima plant.

But nowhere in the world is as reliant on nuclear reactors as France, which is at the forefront of the nuclear push at the European and global level. And it’s among leading players in the nuclear waste industry, recycling or reprocessing material from around the world.

South of the World War I battlefields of Verdun, trucks bearing radioactivity warning stickers pull into a waste storage site near the village of Soulaines-Dhuys. They’re repeatedly checked, wiped and scanned for leaks. Their cargo — compacted waste stuffed into concrete or steel cylinders — is stacked by robotic cranes in warehouses that are then filled with gravel and sealed with more concrete.

The agency that manages the waste, Andra, knows it scares people. “I cannot fight against people’s fears. Our role is to guarantee the safety of people and the environment and the workers on the site,” said spokesman Thierry Pochot.

The storage units hold 90% of France’s low- to medium-activity radioactive waste, including tools, clothing and other material linked to reactor operation and maintenance. The site is designed to last at least 300 years after the last shipment arrives, when the radioactivity of its contents is forecast to be no higher than levels found in nature.

For longer-life waste — mainly used nuclear fuel, which remains potentially deadly for tens of thousands of years — France is laying the groundwork for a permanent, deep-Earth repository beneath corn and wheat fields outside the nearby stone-house hamlet of Bure.

Some 500 yards below the surface, workers carry out tests on the clay and granite, carve tunnels and seek to prove that the longterm- storage plan is the safest solution for future generations. Similar sites are under development or being studied in other countries, too. If the repository wins French regulatory approval, it would hold 94,000 tons of the most radioactive waste produced “from the beginning of the nuclear era until the end of existing nuclear facilities,” said Audrey Guillemenet, geologist and spokesperson for the underground lab.

“We can’t leave this waste in storage sites on the surface,” where it is now, she said. “That is secure but not sustainable.”

The $29 billion cost of the proposed repository is built into budgeting by French utilities, Guillemenet said.

However, that’s just one piece of the staggering cost of building and operating nuclear plants, and one of the reasons opposition abounds.

All around Bure, street signs are replaced with graffiti reading “Nuclear is Over,” and activists camp out at the town’s main intersection.

Greenpeace accuses the French nuclear industry of fobbing off waste on other countries and covering up problems at nuclear facilities, which industry officials deny.

 

 

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