Europe's nuclear power plants may produce cheap electricity without CO2 emissions, but they also churn out something less desirable: large quantities of highly radioactive spent fuel. France alone produces 1,200 tons of it each year. Spent nuclear fuel contains plutonium-239, an intensely toxic substance with a half-life of 24,360 years.Different countries have adopted different approaches to the problem. Spain and Italy have followed the U.S. example, leaving spent fuel to cool down for decades on site before consigning it to a permanent deep-storage center. France and Britain have developed technology to reprocess spent fuel into uranium, plutonium and other less toxic waste products. Reprocessing plants at La Hague and Sellafield accept spent fuel from French and British reactors, respectively, as well as from those in other European countries like Germany, Belgium and Switzerland.
Reprocessing's future was looking uncertain even before Germany announced it would pull out of the program in 2005. The main reason for reprocessing was to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. With stocks far exceeding the needs of weapons producers, the reprocessing business had pinned its hopes on plutonium being used as fuel in a new generation of fast-breeder reactors. But Britain and France abandoned their fast-breeder programs because of safety problems and cost over-runs. The plutonium produced by reprocessing is now recombined with uranium to make a nuclear fuel called MOX — mixed oxide. But MOX gives out less energy than ordinary enriched uranium, cannot be reprocessed and must be left to cool for 150 years before it can be permanently stored. Thus reprocessing does little more than put off the day when a hard choice has to be made about nuclear waste.