Friday, 4/24, in Cherbourg, morning at La Hague waste-processing site, afternoon at the construction site of a new state-of-the art EPR reactor at nearby Flamanville, then train back to Paris for the night.
Okay, kind of funny story this morning—our bus was leaving the hotel to go to the La Hague site where they treat spent nuclear fuel and process it before sending it off to the MELOX plant we saw on Wednesday for recycling. And at one point we were stuck behind a flatbed that had a huge cement half-cylinder on it and an escort of flashing trucks. So naturally, being budding nuke dorks, we all excitedly thought it was a part for the Flamanville nuclear plant being constructed that we were going to see later that afternoon. So everyone got out their cameras and we were all thrilled that here we were stuck in a traffic jam behind some key reactor component and whooo. Except after about 20 minutes it turned off on a totally different road and it was clear that it must’ve just been some concrete sewage pipe part or something mundane that we had all taken endless pictures of.
La Hague was seriously cool. Here’s what happens: The used nuclear fuel rods come in on a giant truck and, they’re highly radioactive, so they’re stuck in a room where the windows are all one-meter thick leaded glass, and they’re manipulated with these giant robot arms. Anyone who went into the room would be in bad shape very quickly, so you don’t go in there. Then the old fuel rods are placed in a casket and put in a gigantic swimming pool so that they can cool off for a few years.
Next we saw the swimming pool itself and stood near it and all that lay between us and highly toxic used fuel rods was four meters of water. You could see the caskets down below, glimmering at the bottom of the pool. So naturally I asked what would happen if you fell into the water, because there was only a thin guardrail preventing that. It turns out that water stops radioactive particles very well, and as long as you stuck to the surface of the pool, you’d be quite fine. It’d just be a terrible idea to try to dive deep down and try to touch the barrels.
Then after the fuel rods cool in the pools for a few years, they’re chopped up and the metal is separated from the uranium and plutonium and toxic fission products, and then the uranium and plutonium is separated and sent off for recycling to create new fuel, and all that’s left are the highly dangerous fission products (about 4 percent of the spent fuel—so recycling essentially reuses 96 percent of used nuclear fuel). Then the fission stuff is melted into a goo and mixed with glass so that it turns into glass particles and goes into a new cask and is then being stored temporarily at La Hague while France comes up with a new permanent repository.
Next we sauntered into the room that held all the fission-product waste deep underground and stood on top of it all. We were quite safe—several meters of steel and concrete were shielding us from the radiation—but there it was, 40 years worth of French nuclear waste, piled up in three rooms the size of high school gymnasiums. I’m still not convinced that nuclear-waste recycling is the greatest thing since sliced atoms, but it was certainly striking to see that finding space to store it all was certainly not the issue. There it all was, in a few medium-sized rooms, the final unusable waste, supposedly fused with glass and unable to get out even if the glass shatters (although I’m not totally sure how that works—a very nice Areva chemical engineer from South Carolina who looked just like Pryzbylewski from The Wire explained how vitrification works, even though I kept asking stuff like, “But how do you know as an Absolute 100% Truth that the contamination will never escape the glass?). It was striking, that’s for sure.
Naturally we had to wear hardhats and white jumpsuits. Also, all of the safety signs in La Hague were pretty hilarious. One seemed to be informing workers that they should look all around them when handling something or other, but the cartoon showed a worker who appeared to have three faces on his head, which, it must be said, is not the most inspiring image when you’re wandering near radioactive waste. Also, all the computers in the control room looked straight out of some 1960s NASA station with big clunky buttons and four-color screens and a lemon-yellow chassis. But I’m sure it’s all state of the art. I hope so!
Anyway, lunch was like eight different types of meat (like I said, it’s futile to be a vegetarian here—the only salad to be found half the time is the bed of lettuce used to display the slices of roast beef), and then we went on to the Flamanville construction site, where they’re building a new state-of-the-art reactor right by the ocean. I’m not sure I learned much from this place. At one point, our guide (this was an EDF site, not Areva—EDF runs the reactors, remember, and they also manage the worksite) was mentioning that the water pumps have a flow of such-and-such cubic meters per second, and I was scribbling it down diligently in my notebook until I realized, “When the FUCK will I ever need to remember this? What am I doing?”
On the plus side, the view was impressive: Seventeen giant cranes and a huge yawning pit where the reactor would go, and the whole thing entailed 70,000 tons of iron for the rebar and 300,000 cubic meters of cement (these beasts are designed to withstand plane crashes, after all). It sort of looked like SimCity, with a new downtown rising up before our eyes, except it wasn’t a downtown it was a giant concrete shell that would house a radioactive core and steam generators and whatever else. Mostly I just wanted to ask questions like, “How do you get the cranes down when you’re done?” and “What happens if a crane falls?” and “Why do you need more security here than at the regular sites—isn’t it safer if someone just tries to blow up a construction site than the real thing?” But the EDF people weren’t amused.
Well, hell, that about covers my trip. Basically I’ve learned all about how they go about their atomic business in France, and I guess I feel slightly less queasy about all those new plants trying to sprout up in the United States. But then again, that was always sort of the case, since even the risk of a Chernobyl-type incident once every 20 years isn’t nearly as scary as the risk of really drastic global warming that turns us into chestnuts roasting on an open fire. So maybe I’ll go full shill when I come back to America and will start saying stuff like, “Hell, I stood on top of all of France’s nuclear waste and look at me! I could’ve gone swimming in the swimming pool!” Except it doesn’t work like that.
Blah, well, much to think about. I’m actually glad I’m coming home tomorrow—I’ve been running on way too little sleep these days and doing a full morning of briefings and tours and then racing across France on a train in the evening (and then those marathon five-course dinners with otherworldly meats and matching wines).
I sort of wish I’d taken pictures on this trip, but cameras weren’t allowed in most of the nuclear facilities anyway (we’re allowed to download Areva stock photos, oh joy) and I guess I described most of the highlights, which isn’t really a good substitute but how often do you like seeing someone else’s pictures anyway if you weren’t there. I took plenty of pictures in Moscow and St. Petersburg when I went in 2003, and all those crooked chapels I snapped now look as appealing as telephone poles, whereas I still get a kick out of re-reading all the frantic crepe-fueled e-mails I sent from St. Petersburg Internet cafes where I was sitting elbow to elbow with Nigerian scammers and Russian toughs in pointy black shoes and I was complaining to friends back home about starving to death because I couldn’t order anything in the Russian stores without Andrey by my side and in all of the supermarkets the bread and cheese was behind the shelf so you had to ask for what you wanted by some unknown name rather than being able to haul your goods up to the cash register and that was all well and good for the Russians (or as they say in France, Rooshans), but what about me and how I finally just caved and went to Pizzeria Uno because I had ordered some vile animal organ at the last restaurant I had braved.
Final bit of the final entry: I should say, the junket group had a fun last night together. None of us could stomach yet another gorilla-sized four-course Paris dinner, so we just slummed it at a bar with beer and fries. Then the older folks in our group got tipsy and wanted to ask get-to-know-you questions, so we did favorite author, favorite book, favorite actor, one-thing-we-don’t-know-about-you… sort of painfully awkward.
But it was also nothing a little wine couldn’t cure, so embarrassed silence quickly gave way to much guffawing. Highlights were when Mike, the conservative radio show guy with the bicked-bald head (who has done some pretty nifty things in his life—he was an extra in Air Force One; he’s a licensed farrier; he once lived on a Caribbean island for three years doing a startup radio station), well, sure enough, Mike listed Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism as the best book he’s read of late and I almost audibly rolled my eyes and blurted out, “That’s the most laughably horrible book anyone could possibly list…,” but then everyone snickered and I felt cruel so I added brightly, “But that’s just because I’m a liberal fascist!” But that created awkwardness, I felt, so I forced myself later to agree with Mike’s paean to Laurence Olivier (not such a stretch for me) and also then laughed heartily at his Richard Burton imitation (that was a little more painful). Then Mike and Nancy, both in their 50s at least, started squabbling yet again like siblings on a road trip over the precise parameters of each other’s questions. (Mike: “You’re listing two authors and you said we could only list one!” Nancy: “Well it’s my question, so I can do what I want. When it was your dumb question about why everyone was afraid of nuclear power you were allowed to define it the way you wanted.” Mike: “I’m not complaining, I’m just reminding you of the rules. We need to have rules.”)
Also, there’s something called eau de vie that the waitress brought us at the end for dessert and it’s some sort of schnapps-like liquid that hits you with peppermint in areas of your mouth that don’t ever see much action.
Anyway, when dinner was over, I strolled around Montmarte with a few people in the group and saw Sacre Coeur once again in the pitch black (sure enough, the b-list performers were still commandeering the adjoining plaza—we saw some teens in the dark twirling firesticks who would not even be skilled enough to hang at Newport). Off in the distance, the Eiffel tower was glittering like a sparkler on the beach. They really know how to light that sucker up at night. And then we rolled through the Moulin Rouge/Sex Museum strip where the nudie joints are blowing up and the West Africans are hustlin’. The seedy neon signs remind me of Roppongi and strangely, with that gaudy windmill atop the Moulin Rouge and the slightly flat karaoke singers flooding various cafes, I felt at home for a brief moment.