Search in

Digital Archive International History Declassified



  • Citation

    get citation

    South African Foreign Affairs memorandum analyzing France's power strategy and comparing benefits in the use of natural uranium vs. enriched uranium in nuclear power plants.
    "Replacement of Natural Uranium with Enriched Uranium: Will France Build American or English Nuclear Power Plants?," 1960, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, BTS 137/11/4 Vol 5. Obtained by Anna Konieczna, and contributed by Anna-Mart van Wyk, Monash South Africa.
  • share document


English HTML

Replacement of natural uranium with enriched uranium:

Will France build American or English nuclear power plants?


According to the latest annual report of Electricité de France ( E.D.F. ), about 90% in the increase in the demand for electricity from 1975 onwards could be met by atomic power plants.

The total amount of power produced by all stations currently in operation in France amounts to 19 million kilowatts, with consumption doubling in ten years; it is therefore apparent that sufficient nuclear power plants will have to be built to produce about 30 million kilowatts: 1½ times the power of all the other thermal or hydraulic installations that exist to date …

To put so extensive a programme into effect, tried and tested types of reactors naturally have to be used. Natural uranium, graphite and gas reactors appear to be suitable.

But today, after Great Britain has stopped building power plants of this kind, France appears to be their only proponent. Are we nevertheless going to continue along this path, convinced that we know better than all the other nuclear powers?

Yesterday that question would have appeared ridiculous. But the idea of using enriched uranium has gained ground and appears to be gaining a hold on some people. While the E.D.F. is proceeding with the implementation of its programme of natural uranium power plants, it is now planning to build enriched uranium power plants of the American type, in collaboration with Swiss and Belgian electricity producers. The E.D.F. and the C.E.A. have formed a committee to initiate a private investigation into the technical and financial benefits of various kinds of plants. It is possible that there may be a radical change that will call into question the whole nuclear policy that France has followed so far.

France has always held certain views on nuclear energy : relying on techniques developed by our engineers, fed by fuel in the form of a mineral of which France controls considerable supplies, it should enable us to resist the consequences of the natural division of traditional fuels and ultimately to achieve independence in respect of energy. For today and tomorrow this ambition rests on a “family” of reactors studied by the C.E.A. (the graphite-gas route where the function of fuel is fulfilled by natural uranium); in future it will depend on reactors in which heavy water will take over the role of graphite as moderator, and in the more distant future it will depend on “surgénérateurs”, plants which are known to produce more fuel than they consume. Simultaneously with electricity, the graphite-gas reactors and the heavy water reactors produce plutonium which is required to feed the “surgénérateurs”, which in turn would produce even more plutonium, which would enable us to construct even more “surgénérateurs” …

By following this process – already known as the “plutonium route” – it is thought in France that it would be possible to generate atomic energy almost at will, without the necessity to build a factory for the enrichment of uranium that would meet the needs of a civil programme – which would have meant a big financial outlay – and without having to buy enriched uranium from the United States, which would again have made us dependent on foreign countries. We are encouraged by the fact that Britain appears to be following the same path.

But on both sides of the Channel not all technicians have been able to remain deaf to the announcement of the benefits offered by plants with enriched uranium, such as those being built in the United States.

During the construction of the heavy water experimental reactor EL-4 in France it was observed for the first time that, for reasons related to materials for the fuel casing, it is difficult to convert this type of reactor in practice without using slightly enriched fuel. When, with American aid, the static prototype of the engine of the future “nuclear” submarines was constructed, it was observed, again in France, that enriched uranium reactors could be built without too much difficulty and that they work extremely well.

In Great Britain development moved faster: after initial hesitation between the use of the American plants which used enriched uranium and that of a new type of reactor – the A.G.R. – which was developed in England and also used enriched uranium, the British chose the second option and undertook to increase the production capacity of their enrichment plant. This demonstrated that it is possible to move from natural fuel to enriched fuel without sacrificing a certain degree of independence.

Therefore, in the face of the opinion of the Americans, British and Russians, France remained convinced of the benefits of natural uranium. Are we right – there can be more than one good solution to a technical problem – or are we simply obstinate?

 It was difficult enough to ask this question. For many French atomic energy specialists adherence to the use of natural uranium was not based on logical considerations alone; certain emotional reasons, and one might say faith, also came into the picture. But it was impossible to answer the question.

The reason is that the choice of a model for a nuclear power station is chiefly an economic problem: since in present circumstances one can acknowledge that the different power plant models are generally satisfactory from a technical point of view, it has to be determined which is the most advantageous. The question is all the more difficult because the price of the electric current generated is not the only criterion to be taken into account. The financial burden that arises from the building of a plant must also be taken into consideration.

But, whereas it is generally accepted that enriched uranium plants can produce electricity at a lower price than natural uranium plants, it is also a recognised fact that there is a difference of about 10% between the investment costs for the construction of these plants in favour of enriched uranium.

This is an essential consideration for the E.D.F. because their financial resources, which are directly controlled by the State, are limited. Would they be able to build all the nuclear power plants that the increasing demand for electricity would require by using plants with the highest construction costs?

These considerations may possibly be supported by the recollection of the disappointments with the power plants E.D.F.-1 and E.D.F.-2, where there were many failures that were all related to conventional material.

At all events the E.D.F., together with Swiss and Belgian electricity producers, is studying the construction of two enriched uranium plants of the boiling water type. In Switzerland a project is being studied which involves a 600 megawatt plant to be built by a company where the capital [costs] will be shared by the E.D.F. and a Swiss group. In Belgium the proposed collaboration affects one of two reactors of 500 to 600 megawatts which the Belgians want to construct, one in Flanders and the other in Wallonia.

It would appear that the Swiss project arose mainly because of financial considerations, because the Swiss market offers interesting possibilities for the issue of shares that would cover the building costs of the plant for the present. The Belgian project, on the other hand, appears to be inspired largely by industrial considerations, because the E.D.F. wants to discover under what circumstances a French firm would be able to meet the financial and technical requirements that arise from participation in the building of a boiling water plant.

If one thinks of these two projects, one might possibly be too quick to conclude that they reflect the E.D.F.’s desire to get away from the graphite-gas concept in future. But it is apparent that one can assume that they clearly express the determination of this organisation not to confine themselves, on the eve of the launching of a very comprehensive programme, to the investigation of the possibilities afforded by the national concept. Undoubtedly these projects, if they come to fruition, are also expected to provide accurate indications regarding the actual investment in a boiling water plant of this kind.

However interesting the comparisons may be to which these experiments could lead, the eventual use of enriched uranium plants would cause very delicate problems that require careful analysis.

It would firstly be necessary to establish how the industry, which has so recently been promoted to atomic maturity, will cope with foreign-inspired plants. Would they have to obtain licences, not only for certain kinds of material and equipment but also for the plant as a whole? Or would this industry, according to the example of what is happening in Germany, be able to give so much attention to the study of certain kinds of foreign plants that they will eventually come up with what is virtually an original plant? Because a policy of purchases under licence can, depending on the way in which it is planned and applied, just as well lead to the incorporation of foreign techniques as to complete independence …

The problem of fuel provision, which in this case is a problem of the Government’s, is equally delicate. The enriched uranium requirements which arise from a civil programme for constructing power plants are undoubtedly far greater than the requirements of a military programme for weapons manufacture. The difference is all the more evident because the civil programme is already under way, because apart from the replacement of fuel that has already been consumed in the plants, it is necessary to think of perfecting uranium loading for the plants currently being exported.

It is therefore impossible to base the provision of enriched uranium required for the construction programme of enriched uranium plants on the production of the Pierrelatte plant.

There are only two possible ways of getting hold of the required fuel: obtain it from the United States – for example by having France’s natural uranium enriched – or build new plants. It might be possible to combine the two possibilities by accepting dependence on the United States for a portion of the fuel and at the same time building an enrichment unit that will be big enough to make a maximum contribution to the launching of the programme or to guarantee a given fraction of the replacement fuel.

Could one go back to an old idea and build a European factory? In such a case the possible participants would have to be prepared to pay more for their enriched uranium than for enriched uranium from the United States, because the constituent treaty of Euratom forbids the imposition of customs duties which would have restored the price balance.

But agreement would also have to be reached on the kind of enriched uranium reactor to be built. While General Electric’s boiling water reactor has recognised advantages, the Westinghouse pressurised water reactor also has its merits, especially since French technicians are already familiar with it to some extent. There is also the English A.G.R.

The specialists of the C.E.A., some of whom have possibly forgotten that even very recently they could not find sufficiently strong terms of criticism, should give even more consideration to the A.G.R. because it promises to operate with great efficiency, and therefore to use less fuel, and because the necessary knowledge of the plant should be readily available. At least this is the impression created by the first contacts with the British. And with its gas cooling system the English A.G.R. comes closer to our customary conceptions than the American water reactors.

Would an understanding regarding the building of A.G.R.-type plants in France throw new light on the problem of the provision of enriched uranium? Could one imagine that France and Great Britain might find reasons to combine their financial resources and technical knowledge in order to build an enrichment plant that would make them, and Europe, independent of America? For the present this is just a dream.

An understanding between French industry and the German firm Siemens on the basis of which they could jointly introduce heavy water reactors to the outside world, is that also a dream? To determine the French nuclear future, we need to think not only of tomorrow but also of the day after tomorrow and the following step especially should be taken into account: the commissioning of the “surgénérateurs”. Will this take place shortly? If so, whatever interest there may be in enriched uranium reactors, it would be necessary to start with the building of a large number of natural uranium reactors, because they are the best producers of plutonium. Or would this only take place later? In that case it might be necessary to work out an intermediate generation that could relieve the [pressure on] the existing plants – a function which the heavy water reactors could possibly take over.  It would also be necessary to decide on the type of heavy water reactor: a gas-cooled reactor, such as EL-4 – but that solution does not appear very satisfactory, although Siemens is interested in it – or a boiling heavy water reactor? This issue is being studied on both sides of the Rhine.

Recourse to the reactors of big American firms, use of the British A.G.R., collaboration with a German company – there are enough possibilities to compensate for the French graphite-gas concept, or rather to complement it. It is equally difficult to choose between the various possibilities that present themselves or to determine whether it is really necessary to look for new kinds of plants overseas. It is also especially necessary to avoid any overhasty or partial decision. Whereas French nuclear energy [development] was initially tentative and possibly overconfident, it is now entering a period of reflection.