Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke

Senior Advisor, Foresight and Strategy

Andra

January 3, 2022

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Ep 347: Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke - Senior Advisor for Foresight and Strategy, Andra
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Michelle Brechtelsbauer
So today we're here with Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke, the Senior Advisor for Foresight and Strategy at the French National Radioactive Waste Management Agency, Andra. Great to have you here, Jean-Michel, at the World Nuclear Exhibition 2021.

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
Thank you. I'm happy to.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Excellent. I'd love to start off by talking about your background and how you got into nuclear energy and waste management in the very beginning.

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
Sure. Maybe I should start with I have 40 years of background and experience in nuclear waste management. Not only nuclear, but waste management. This is my expertise. In the very beginning, I worked with the French Atomic Commission-

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
CEA, right?

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
CEA, yes. But afterwards I joined Andra and has been with Andra for maybe more than 30 years.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Excellent, excellent.

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
At that time Andra was not as it is today. Today it is an independent government agency, independent from waste producers. At that time, when I started work with Andra, Andra was a department within the CEA, within the French Atomic Commission.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
And what has your role- what was your role when you first joined Andra? Were you- what were you doing when you first started out, back when it was part of CEA?

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
My personal history is that my education was mining engineer. Education, not professional experience. Maybe I have six months professional experience in a uranium mine. That's it. But that's- this expertise interested at that time the CEA, because the CEA started a program on geological disposal of nuclear waste. So they thought at that time that a mining engineer with some knowledge in geology could be interesting. So that's the reason why I started with the CEA 40 years ago.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Yes. And so back when you began working with CEA and Andra- I guess today, we're just starting to have the first steps towards making a concrete project for geological disposal. Can you talk us through the history of seeing this project come to life through your career?

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
Yes, this project is going to be- well, actually, I hope it will be licensed maybe in five years or something like that. And afterwards, we will start construction. But for me, it's not the first step towards concrete things. The first step was in 2000 with the construction of the Underground Research Laboratory in Bure. That was a good long history which started in 1991.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
And what were the objectives of the underground research laboratory?

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
To assess the feasibility of a safe geological disposal facility. It was research, research and development. From 1991 up to 2006 - 2005 - Andra was only in charge of the research program on the feasibility of geological disposal. And we needed this laboratory, underground laboratory, to characterize a potential host rock and to assess that we could be capable- we can be capable to construct underground openings in this geological formation and that this geological formation would be capable to contain radionuclides for a very long time That was the objective of this- the initial objective of this laboratory. But afterwards, in 2005, we provided the government - and the country I would say - with a feasibility report, conclusion that was that it is possible to construct, to build, an industrial scale geological disposal facility in this geological formation, and that this disposal facility will be very safe. That means that it will be capable to contain radionuclides for hundred thousands of years, several hundred thousands of years. And we provided the government with this conclusion in this report and this report was reviewed by many people and in particular the French regulator. Afterwards, an act was voted to declare that the reference route for the management of high-level radioactive waste is surgical disposal. And I would say our real project for an industrial scale, this geological disposal facility started in 2006 or 2007. We passed from a pure research phase to the preparation of an industrial project.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
And that project is the Cigéo-

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
-Cigéo. The name was given to the project, I think, in 2009 or something like that to highlight that we were passing from research phase to an industrial phase of project.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
And so, as you said earlier, this project is I believe in the permitting phase-

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
Yeah, yeah.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
-for getting construction licenses, but it'll be at the same site as the laboratory.

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
It's close. It's not the same facility, it's not exactly the same site. The underground research facility was designed only for research. It is impossible to put waste, projective waste in the URL. It's too small and it's clear. But on the basis of this underground research laboratory, we were in position to characterize a regional area around the laboratory around 250 square kilometers. And we said in 2006, we explained that this 250 square kilometers area was- is similar to the underground laboratory and if we build a repository in this area, we can use-

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
All the data.

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
-all the data gained in the laboratory. And then a new siting phase started in 2006 within this 250 square kilometers area. The result is the underground facility for Cigéo is maybe five kilometers far from the Underground Research Laboratory, but we will have an inclined drift between the future underground facility and the surface to ship the underground, the waste packages, waste. And the location of this inclined drift is very close to the location of the Underground Research Laboratory. That's the reason that they're very close. But they are close on the surface, not so close underground. A few kilometers distance between both. This is the result of our siting campaign, which included, of course, technical issues, but mainly social issues.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
I'd love to hear about some of the public kind of engagement that you all have had been able to do, obviously, because the laboratory has been there for so long, but also now that we're in the planning phase, kind of what the public engagement and the public sentiment have been.

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
We have performed a number of consultations with local public. In the very first phase, that was around 1993 or something like that to implement the URL, because the siting of the URL was based on voluntarism. At that time, we were not directly responsible for the siting. The siting was made under the auspices of a member of the Parliament at that time. But of course, that was based on voluntourism. Later, from 2006, we were in charge of the siting of the Cigéo project itself and we have made a number of consultations with the public, with the local stakeholders, local elected people, and the public to define where the facilities should be to optimize everything, including the relationship with the local communities. And today, we still have consultations with the public to define some concrete aspects of the project such as how to transport with packages, how to provide power, how to provide water. And so we have a consultation on the future governance of the facility itself, how we will govern the successive phases, which will occur when we will be licensed.

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
I would love to talk to you about that idea, the successive phases, the kind of stepwise development plans. I'd also like to kind of hear your perspective on some of the innovations that this facility has built into its design, into its planning, the idea of reversibility for example.

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
Yeah, reversibility is a key word, but this word is relatively old. The French government decided that the geological disposal should be investigated in the logic of reversibility. They decided that in 1998, but we had to transform this very general world into concrete solutions. And it's clear that the stepwise development is a key point. We have had a number of milestones, decision milestones from 2006 up to now and this very stepwise process will continue. After the license, we will start a so-called industrial pilot phase.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
And what does that entail?

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
It includes the verification that everything works as planned. That we can construct full size openings from the shaft inclines raised and underground drifts, underground vaults for the disposal for the placement of the waste packages. That we can also implement mechanical systems to transfer underground waste in a very safe manner. And finally, that we can place the waste package in a very safe manner and also that we can retrieve it if decided and of course to monitor everything to check that there is no particular problem compared to what is planned. This is the pilot phase. And during the pilot phase, we will, at the end of the pilot phase - or I would say the second period of the pilot phase - includes the waste package in placement tests. Firstly, with mockups, but afterwards with real packages. It's an industrial phase. It's very similar to an industrial operation. So during this pilot phase, we will dispose of- we will emplace waste packages. We will then place intermediate level waste packages and also some high-level waste-

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
You'll do HLW?

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
Yes, small amount of high-level waste, because it's mainly to check that everything works as planned. And at the end of this pilot phase, we will have to report if everything is okay or not. Normally a new act is required will be required - to decide to go to the next phase. And the story will not stop at that time, because we still have other milestones. In particular, after the pilot phase, we plan to emplace ILW mainly, or I would say only intermediate-level waste to around 2080. And then or around 2080, we will have to decide if we dispose of high-level waste I see. The most important part of the hazardness of the hazards of the waste is in the high-level waste. And so I think we will have a very long experience of geological disposal before deciding to dispose of the high-level waste around 2080. During the transition phase from now to 2080, the radioactivity of this high level with decreases with thermal decay. At that time, the high-level waste will be compatible with the long-term safety of the repository with respect to its thermal output.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
And so this repository will be able to house all of France's intermediate level waste as well as its high level waste.

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
Yeah.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Great, great.

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
All the- it is designed to accommodate all the intermediate level and high-level waste that already exists that were produced from- and also those which will be produced by the actual power plants in France, up to their shutdown-

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
End of their lifetimes. Excellent. And so I, of course, in addition to this kind of stepwise development plan where we have all these milestones for testing and verification, something I also thought was really interesting about the project is how its funded, and how there's particular attention paid to ensuring that the funding is coming from current-

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
The funding does not come from the government. It does not come from the taxpayers. The funding comes from the waste producers. Waste producers are responsible for all expenses for the dismantling of their facilities and the management of their waste. But to be sure that we will have the money in the future, today they prepare, they make financial provisions which are very safe, which are very controlled, so that we are sure that we will get the money when we need it for the pilot phase, but also for the phases after.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
And so it's kind of coming back to your role in all of this, in this project. And of course, just in the organization in general, as you are Senior Advisor for Foresight - looking into the future - and Strategy - so as a kind of the current the current vision of the organization - where do you see yourself? What is the most interesting thing to you that you're currently working on?

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
First, I consider I think the most important part of my career was a 15-year period where I was project manager for this Cigéo project. That was between 1993 and 2006. I was the project manager, so that was very fun, very, very nice, because we had to develop the safety strategy. How to develop the safety strategy of the safety case of this project. How to develop reversibility to go from a single word to concrete solutions. And so, to design facilities in this very- in this clay formation. It's clay, some granite. We have to adapt to the- we adapt the design to the geology. If you compare the Cigéo project and the Swedish project, for instance, you can see differences. This is due to very different geological formations. So all this was made during this period where I was project manager. And afterwards, I've had several various positions in Andra program management, safety, environment, and now Foresight and Strategy, how we imagine the future, but clearly is on the basis of my background.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Yes, yes, absolutely. I mean, it sounds like it's been a really fascinating career to get to take something that was just a vision and a request of government and to turn it into something very real that is going to be impactful for enabling clean energy used by the future generations and the safe storage of the waste produced by that energy production.

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
In my country we have a very wide range of nuclear waste, where 90% of the volume of waste which is produced today is disposed of by Andra in near surface facilities. The very high-level waste, the waste with the highest hazard, will be disposed of. I hope that they will be disposed of in Cigéo. But we also have in between waste and we are now thinking of graded solutions for disposing these in between wastes that are not compatible with near surface disposal, but we considered that Cigéo is not adapted to this in between waste. And we have significant programs in France and with Andra to develop new solutions for these wastes.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Could you give me an example of that- the type of waste are you talking about. Objects or equipment that have been exposed to radioactive sources? Or what are these types of wastes that you're speaking of?

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
This in between waste? Graphite waste from the very first generation of nuclear plants in France, radium bearing waste - they are not, some are nuclear, others are not from the nuclear industry, radium bearing waste. Also, uranium conversion waste. You turn a yellowcake into UF4 before enrichment. You generate uranium bearing waste that are in between. And as so, we also have another category of waste we're working on, it's depleted uranium. Depleted uranium can be recycled in the future in fast breeder reactors, but to be sure that we take into account all possibilities in the future, we also have to imagine how we could dispose of this depleted uranium in the case it would not be recycled in the future. Also, it's an in between waste.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
And this will also- this is something that you're currently exploring to be- for Cigéo to house this type of waste as well.

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
Cigéo can maybe be an option for disposing this, but we are also investigating other options which may be more graded options, graded to the intermediate level of hazard of these in between waste. So we are working on shallow depth solutions and it's a long history. So research and development is not finished today in France with the engagement of Cigéo project. We have to continue research for the future phases of Cigéo, but we also have to continue research for developing new solutions for waste management.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Yeah, so I guess we'll kind of wrap up. I'd love to hear in a few sentences what you see as the future of radioactive waste management in France and the leadership role that your country and your organization are playing this space.

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
The future is- the best wish we can have is that in maybe one decade - or yeah, one decade, I would say - we have solutions for all waste. Today we have solutions for 90% of the waste, 95% if we consider all Cigéo. But my wish is that we will have a solution to all the waste. Maybe- it will be a stepwise process, system to develop new solutions. I think we will progress significantly in the next five years, but afterwards we will have to go on.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Oh, that's fantastic. And it's great to see that you are- you have that foresight and you and your organization are leading the way and France is leading the way in this. So thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

Jean-Michel Hoorelbeke
Thank you.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Thank you.

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