A Magic Waste-Eating Nuclear Reactor, Killed by Environmentalists? Nope

The so-called “waste-eating” reactors are simply… breeder reactors like Superphénix, a type of reactor that the global nuclear industry has failed to get up and running for 70 years. (Photo: IAEA Imagebank/Wikimedia Commons)

Appearing as a guest on several TV channels (BFM, Cnews, etc.), a certain Fabien Bouglé managed to fool both viewers and journalists (most of whom are totally ignorant about nuclear power) with a series of fibs, each more enormous than the last. Here are a few clarifications.

There is no such thing as a “nuclear waste-eating” reactor

The smooth-talking Bouglé left his ignorant interlocutors stunned and bewildered as he talked about “waste-eating” reactors that would have already solved the radioactive waste issue if an infamous green lobby, “betraying France to Germany” (sic!), hadn’t “prevented” the advent of such reactors.

So, like throwing a log on the fire, all you have to do is put the radioactive waste produced by today’s power plants into a “magic” reactor, and the waste will disappear.

Mr. Bouglé finally divulged his “secret”: the so-called “waste-eating” reactors are simply… breeder reactors: a type of reactor that the global nuclear industry has failed to operate for 70 years, like Superphénix in France! And, even if it did work, it would in no way eliminate radioactive waste. What’s more, less than 1% of nuclear fuel (the most radioactive waste) could theoretically have its lifespan reduced, but without disappearing and while becoming even more radioactive! In the nuclear industry, as elsewhere, miracles do not exist.

The Astrid project was not “on the way to success” and was not “taken over by Bill Gates”

Despite its pretty name, the Astrid reactor project was nothing more than a little Superphénix: a sodium-cooled breeder reactor. Look at the “progress”: 40 years after the launch of Superphénix (1240 MW), the CEA wanted to make another attempt with a reactor half as powerful (600 MW), before giving up altogether.

Japan’s Monju fast-breeder reactor was definitively shut down after countless failures, a terrible fire and sodium leaks; Germany’s Kalkar fast-breeder reactor was never commissioned; and the USA has abandoned the sector. Only Russia manages to keep its BN800 hobbling along… but it doesn’t perform any of the miracles expected of it (producing “more fissile material than it consumes”, “eating” radioactive waste and other nonsense).

As for Bill Gates, he’s one of the dummies who, in recent years, have announced various types of miraculous reactors, always claiming to be able to produce electricity “cheaply, safely and with little waste” (blah blah blah). Beginning in 2006, Bill Gates and his company Terrapower first tried to make a “travelling wave” reactor work, then a “molten salt” one, both abandoned after wasting billions. Now Gates is dreaming of developing… a sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactor: back to Superphénix and 70 years of failure for the global nuclear industry.

France’s nuclear woes are caused by… France’s nuclear woes!

The “evil anti-nuclear environmentalists” and the so-called “traitors in the pay of Germany” denounced by Inspector Bouglé have nothing to do with the disasters of French nuclear power: EDF, Areva (now Orano) and the CEA are doing just fine on their own! For example:

+ Industrial and financial disasters at the EPR sites in Finland, Flamanville and England: 15 to 20 years (instead of four and a half) to build a reactor costing 20 billion Euros instead of 3 billion, and with serious defects.

+ The unprecedented scandal of the thousands of defective parts (including the famous Flamanville EPR vessel) produced by Areva in its Le Creusot plants.

+ Catastrophic and ruinous flops at the Iter (fusion) and RJH reactor sites.

+ Stress corrosion (up to 32 reactors out of 56 shut down at the same time in 2022)

And so on.

France’s nuclear woes are caused by… France’s nuclear woes, not “evil anti-nuclear environmentalists”. (Photo: Linda Pentz Gunter)

Contrary to popular belief, the French nuclear industry is by no means “triumphant”, “the best in the world” or “at the cutting edge of technology”: in fact, EDF (bankrupt), Areva (renamed Orano after filing for bankruptcy) and CEA (subsidized by public money) are constantly making fools of themselves and leaving the French with astronomical bills.

The Fessenheim closure is not the cause of electricity shortages in France and imports from Germany

Mr. Bouglé claims that France was an exporter to Germany before the closure of Fessenheim and that it has suddenly become an importer because of the plant’s closure in 2020. He’s talking nonsense.

In reality, there are exchanges (in both directions) between the two countries throughout the year. When the balance sheet is drawn up on December 31, France is still an importer from Germany (*), and has been for over 25 years (**), long before Fessenheim was shut down.

This phenomenon is mainly due to the absurd choice of electric heating, developed on a massive scale in France to “justify” nuclear power: as soon as it gets cold, electricity consumption is such that it far exceeds the capacity of the French nuclear fleet, even when it’s working properly!

It’s also worth noting the ridiculous claim that life was wonderful in France with 58 reactors, and that it has suddenly gone into crisis with “only” 56 reactors, which in reality is an insane number. For the record, during the stress corrosion crisis, France was saved by importing massive amounts of electricity from neighboring countries, which have only a few reactors, if any at all.

(*) Of course, we can criticize the fact that a significant proportion of Germany’s electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants (even if the share of renewables is increasing exponentially), but the fact is that it’s this “dirty” electricity that heats France every winter, and French nuclear enthusiasts don’t go so far as to refuse this electricity and stay in the cold and dark!

(**) Except, very narrowly, in 2011: following the Fukushima disaster, Germany immediately shut down 8 reactors. But by 2012, France was once again a net importer from Germany.

The joke about waste-eating reactors

Let’s start by noting that nuclear reactors continually produce insane quantities of radioactive waste of various kinds, from nuclear fuel to the tools and clothing used in power plants, which are contaminated… and can’t be “eaten”!

But let’s concentrate on the most radioactive, the spent fuel that comes out of the reactor core after use.

Spent fuel comprises four types of element: plutonium, uranium, fission products and minor actinides. Note that the vast majority of radioactivity is contained in these last two categories.

To attempt reuse the waste fuel, separation work must already be carried out in a gigantic plant like La Hague. (Photo: HaguardDuNord/Wikimedia Commons).

To attempt reuse this waste fuel, separation work must already be carried out in a gigantic plant such as La Hague. These operations require huge amounts of electricity and using large quantities of terribly corrosive and dangerous chemicals: a far cry from the “clean” energy that could “save the planet”.


Listening to Mr. Bouglé, the uninformed viewer (and the ignorant journalist) think that all they have to do is recover this fuel and put it in the so-called “waste-eating reactor”, which will make this waste disappear… while producing electricity! Jackpot, bravo and thanks for everything. But Santa Claus doesn’t exist, and it’s all poppycock. And here’s why.

It is used by the military for their atomic weapons. Some of this plutonium can be recovered to make fuel (known as “mox”) for use in today’s power plants, which exacerbates the consequences of an accident when it occurs. Various studies show that this option reduces only slightly the amount of uranium needed from mining. But in no case is this plutonium “eaten” or “incinerated”; it is almost entirely recovered after use.


The uranium resulting from these separation operations, known as “reprocessed uranium”, can theoretically be reused in place of mined uranium, but in reality, this option poses a number of technical problems. EDF has been trying to use it for years in its Cruas power plant (Ardèche), after re-enrichment… in Russia (thanks Putin!). But this remains very marginal, and in no case is this uranium “eaten” or “incinerated”; it is almost entirely recovered after use.

Fission products

There’s nothing we can do with them, except vitrify them and store them for millennia!

Minor actinides

These are the only elements of radioactive waste that could theoretically have their lifespan reduced in breeder reactors… while becoming even more radioactive! But even if such a “feat” were to happen (provided we finally manage to operate breeder reactors properly), minor actinides would not be “eaten”, “incinerated” or “disintegrated”. In fact, they are vitrified like fission products and have to be stored for millennia.


Of course, there is no technology that can “eat” nuclear waste. At most, it is theoretically possible (but not in practice) to degrade a tiny fraction of it, and even then, at the cost of new radioactive and chemical contamination and very high energy consumption.

Once and for all, let’s remember that there will never be a nuclear miracle, be it with magic reactors, or by replacing uranium with thorium (the thorium sector is also that of fast-breeder reactors!), or with fusion, or by calling old projects that have never worked “4th generation” or “SMR”.

Stéphane Lhomme is Director of the Nuclear Observatory.

This first appeared on Beyond Nuclear International.

Stéphane Lhomme is a longtime French anti-nuclear campaigner and runs the anti-nuclear network, Nuclear Observatory (Observatoire Du Nucléaire).