Category Archives: waste disposal

Documentary explodes myth of nuclear energy as clean and green

France: Pierrelatte

France: Pierrelatte

Since the 1970s, France’s commitment to nuclear energy has been axiomatic and based on a societal consensus that it provides energy independence as well as a source of energy which is both clean and green. The green component of the argument rests on the assertion – taught to all engineering students as gospel – that 97 % of spent nuclear fuel in France is recycled and transformed into re-usable fuel. That myth was shaken last week by a documentary broadcast on Arte entitled “Déchets – le cauchemar du nucléaire” (Waste: the nuclear nightmare) which showed that EDF, which is France’s main electricity provider, sends nuclear waste to Siberia where most of it is not recycled, but instead is laid to rest in the atomic security complex of Tomsk-7, Siberia.

The documentary provoked disarray in parliament, where the Junior Minister for the Environment, Chantal Jouanno, said she would order an internal enquiry. Speaking on France Info radio, she said: “For my part, I haven’t been able to confirm or deny this information, so there has to be an enquiry.”

The main argument of the documentary is that Areva and EDF run a fuel “cycle” where after first use in nuclear power plants, the fuels are treated and transformed into 3 % of of nuclear waste which has to be stored, 1% of plutonium which is re-used to make MOX (a mixture of uranium oxide and plutonium) and 96 % uranium which is enriched to produce new combustible fuels.

Whereas in fact, of the 96 % of the uranium which is sent to Russia to be enriched, only a tiny fraction is actually re-used (in 4 out of France’s 59 nuclear power plants). This means the real rate of re-use is closer to 10 %. Areva and EDF maintain that under French law, it is illegal to send nuclear waste overseas, and therefore the 96 % of uranium which goes to Russia is recyclable fuel.

Now, the fact that this used uranium is sent to Russia is not news. An official overview of France’s nuclear policy is available online, and the pdf entitled “L’énergie nucleaire en 110 questions“, on page 45, states the following: “The volumes of URT (uranium issu du retraitement) used today in France do not justify the extension of or the creation of a specific industry dedicated to the manufacture of URT fuel, this is why it has relies on existing installations overseas, for example in the Russian Federation.”

The semantics of this debate clearly illustrate the chasm between France’s elite engineering corps – notably graduates of the Ecole Des Mines – and the political class and civil society, both of whom have probably fallen victim to a kind of consensual blindness in wanting to believe the myth of a perfectly clean, green and safe nuclear industry in the competent hands of the country’s best and brightest, who themselves have operated behind the veil of their techno-scientific jargon which few have sought to explain clearly to the man in the street.

Earlier this year, Areva withdrew the use of its corporate slogan “L’Energie au sens propre” (“Energy in the literal sense of the term” with a play on the word “propre” which means clean) following action by the ARPP (France’s watchdog for advertising standards) based on a complaint filed by the Green party that the claim that nuclear energy was clean was inconsistent with the production of nuclear waste. Watch this short video (set, oddly, to “Funky Town”) to get a sense of the corporate message Areva is trying to get across – the offending slogan has been replaced by “Experts en énergie (Energy Experts).

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What’s the real impact of the Grenelle after one year?

One year after the Grenelle on the Environment, what’s the real impact of changes which were decided in an unprecedented coming together of stakeholders across the board from NGOs and unions to business and industry to local authorities. Well, we lost some proposals, such as the carbon tax and the freeze on building new highways. A total of 19 billion euros have been earmarked for 2009-2011 to finance what’s left. The two main items which have come into force already are the “bonus-malus” on cars whereby consumers buying a new car which emits more than 160 g of CO2 per kilometer are penalized with a tax ranging from 200 euros to 2600 euros. Those who own or purchase a car which emits less than 130 g of CO2 per kilometre get a rebate of between 200 and 1000 euros. On the plus side, this has led to 40 percent increase in sales of smaller, lower carbon vehicles, but it has left the state out of pocket by 140 million euros. The law on GM crops was voted in May, but it failed to clarify the crucial issue of what is an acceptable threshold of dissemination of GM crops which could contaminate non-GM crops.

The law on the Grenelle comes up for debate in parliament on October 6, and barring a disaster, these are the things expected to get through: 

– Tighening of entry criteria for the “bonus-malus” – only vehicles emitting less than 125 g of CO2 per kilometre will qualify. The tax on polluting vehicles could be extended to become an annual tax.

– A 15 percent decrease in the volume of non-recycled household waste by 2012

– From 2009, a zero interest loan of up to 30,000 euros for eco-renovation

– Increased emphasis on train transport: By 2030, an additional 4,500 kilometres of high-speed train lines are envisaged. Public transport in cities will get 2.5 billion for development.

– Tax on lorry transport – All lorries of 12 tonnes or more from 2009 will have to pay a tax calculated on the basis of kilometres driven.

– Reduction by 50 percent of pesticide use within the next 10 years. 53 molecules will be withdrawn from the market between now and 2010.

via Le Parisien

 

French PM kills the picnic tax

French Prime Minister François Fillon killed the picnic tax yesterday. Pity. Apparently Fillon and President Nicholas Sarkozy were concerned that Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo was getting carried away, announcing too many “green taxes” and provoking undue anxiety among the parliamentary majority. RTL reports that the PM met Borloo and his deputy, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet yesterday to bring them into line.

via RTL

“Picnic tax” on plastic cups and cutlery in 2009

As part of the government’s drive to use fiscal measures to encourage more sustainable behaviours, Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo announced this week that plastic plates and cutlery would, starting next year, face a “picnic tax” of 90 centimes to the euro for every kilogram. Similar “green” taxes on wasteful fridges, washing machines, televisions and batteries – accompanied by tax breaks on their more eco-friendly equivalents – are also under consideration. Each person in France produces on average 360 kilograms of waste per year, and France has more incinerators per person than any other country in Europe.

via Le Figaro

 

Self-destructing eco-bib made from potato starch

Here is a nice baby gift: an eco-bib made out of potato starch which self-destructs after two years. Waterproof, sponge-washable and guilt-free disposable! Made by cocoboheme.

via Le Figaro

French study warns of risks of downplaying role of methane in climate change

 

A new study in this month’s La Recherche alerts policy makers to the dangers posed by the current method of calculating greenhouse gas emissions which significantly downplays the role of methane in climate change scenarios.

The study, conducted by three climate and energy specialists, points out that reducing the bulk of methane emissions in France generated by rotting garbage dumps would have exactly the same impact on global warming as a 25-year campaign to insulate old buildings at the rate of 400,000 buildings a year.

Methane, or CH4, is produced by humid zones, coal extraction, the petrol and natural gas industry, cows and rotting organic matter. It is just one of the greenhouse gases that contribute to the greenhouse warming effect. Climate change modeling relies on a basic simplification whereby the effects of the other gases are calculated in terms of their carbon equivalent.

This equivalent measure is shorthand for the effect of the entire mix of gases. To attain the carbon emissions targets set by the IPCC, it is not enough to just cut our emissions of carbon dioxide but requires a concerted effort on the other gases as well.

This is a crucial distinction when it comes to translating the scientific recommendations into policy. For example, the final document from last year’s Grenelle on the Environment failed to mention methane in the policy conclusions on climate change.

The IPCC defines Global Warming Potential (GWP) as being a measure of how much a given mass of greenhouse gas is estimated to contribute to global warming. It is a relative scale which compares the gas in question to the same mass of carbon dioxide.

The GWP of methane can vary widely depending on the time frame in question. Methane only stays in the atmosphere for 12 years, which is short compared to carbon dioxide. As the life span of methane in the atmosphere is much shorter than that of CO2, its impact on climate change is greater over a shorter time period.

The European Union is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent against the level of emissions in 1990. Over this period, the GWP of methane increases from the standard factor of 21 to 49. In five years, a ton of methane released into the atmosphere contributes as much as 101 tons of CO2 would to the greenhouse effect.

The study points out that cutting use of fossil fuels is not the only way to fight climate change because levels of methane in the atmosphere could increase sharply in the event of a big meltdown in the Arctic regions.

via La Recherche and Le Figaro

How safe are mid-winter strawberries from Spain?

Most of those strawberries that you can buy at any French supermarket at this time of the year come from Huelva in southern Spain, Europe’s biggest strawberry production hub. They look more or less edible and are priced to sell – at 2.20 euros for a 250 g packet, it is hard to say no. But what is the true cost of these berries when you look at a sobering backstory involving radioactive contamination in the vicinity and exploitation of seasonal immigrant workers?

Huelva has been host to an intensive hub of petrochemical activity – fertilizer factories, oil refinerie etc – since 1964, and was the site of a major incident of radioactive contamination in 1998 when a scrap metal processing plant run by Acerinox leaked Cesium-137 and released a radioactive cloud. Last year Greenpeace discovered Cesium-137 in the marshes near the El Tinto river, just 500 metres from the city of Huelva, during radiation safety training. At the time of the accident, Spanish authorities chose not to handle the cesium ashes as nuclear waste, but assured the world that the dangerous radioactive material had been safely disposed of and isolated from the environment.

Several recent studies have focused attention on the health fallout of that accident.
The first, led by Professor Benach of the Pompeu University of Barcelona, showed that the province of Huelva had a cancer mortality rate which was 25 percent higher than the national norm. The second, published in the summer of 2007 bu the Juan Carlos III University, confirmed a worrying health situation. Around 30 residents’ associations have mobilized to express their concern. Fertiberia, a huge fertilizers plant, has poured some 120 million tonnes of phosphogypsum, a radioactive residue produced by transforming phosphorite into phosphorus, into the nearby marshes over the past 40 years, making the marshland “one of the largests dumps of industrial waste in the world”, according to Carlos Bravo, who heads up the nuclear energy campaign for Greenpeace, Spain.

Greenpeace has asked the European Parliament to pressure Spain to acknowledge that two rubbish dumps in Huelva – Fertiberia and Foret – are radioactive areas. Tests carried out at these sites show that levels of radioactivity are more than 25 times the maximum permitted levels by law. Last October, Greenpeace commissioned a study by France’s Criirad (Commission de Recherche et d’Information indépendantes sur la Radioactivité) which revealed that the soil in the area contained the presence of uranium 238 and 235 and thorium 232 in unusually high concentrations, and also polonium 210, the same element which led to the death of Russian spy Litvinenko, and radon 222 (a known carcinogen) and gamma radiation which is “5 to 38 times higher than the normal level”, according to Bruno Chareyon, the nuclear energy physicist in charge of the study.

Despite these conclusions, the government of Andalusia has refused to carry out an epidemiological study. Local associations are counting on the results of the European Parliament study, expected this year, to confirm their worst fears.

Huelva province accounts for 90 percent of the total strawberry production in Spain and 30 percent of the European Union. While there have not been any scientific studies casting doubt on the safety of these strawberries, it is hard not to flinch when you look at how close the strawberry fields are to the contaminated industrial area. The strawberries are bedded under plastic and need large quantities of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and lots of man hours of picking time. In recent years the work force has shifted from being a mix of North African and Andalusian day workers to migrants from Romania because the former had started to organize themselves and demand rights. Many of the North Africans decided to stay on despite the lack of work, living in unsanitary conditions in plastic shantytowns near the strawberry villages in the hope of occasional work during the peak harvest times. All in all, not a pretty picture. For the time being I’m sticking with apples and pears.

via Le Nouvel Observateur