France Is Still Cleaning Up Marie Curie’s Nuclear Waste

Her lab outside Paris, dubbed Chernobyl on the Seine, is still radioactive nearly a century after her death.


France Is Still Cleaning Up Marie Curie’s Nuclear Waste
Marie Curie working at the Radium Institute, a radioactivity laboratory created for her by the Pasteur Institute and the University of Paris at the University of Paris, 1925. PHOTOGRAPHER: SCIENCE SOURCE

In 1933 nuclear physicist Marie Curie had outgrown her lab in the Latin Quarter in central Paris. To give her the space needed for the messy task of extracting radioactive elements such as radium from truckloads of ore, the University of Paris built a research center in Arcueil, a village south of the city. Today it’s grown into a crowded ­working-class suburb. And the dilapidated lab, set in an overgrown garden near a 17th century aqueduct, is sometimes called Chernobyl on the Seine.

No major accidents occurred at the lab, which closed in 1978. But it’s brimming with radio­activity that will be a health threat for millennia, and France’s nuclear watchdog has barred access to anyone not wearing protective clothing. The lab is surrounded by a concrete wall topped by barbed wire and surveillance cameras. Monitors constantly assess radiation, and local officials regularly test the river.

“We’re proof that France has a serious nuclear waste problem,” says Arcueil Mayor Christian Métairie. “Our situation raises questions about whether the country is really equipped to handle it.”

Nuclear power accounts for almost three-fourths of France’s electricity, vs. a fifth in the U.S. There’s no lasting solution for the most dangerous refuse from the country’s 906 nuclear waste sites, including some of what’s in Arcueil.

Low-level material is to be sent to an aboveground storage site in northeastern France. But radium has a half-life of 1,600 years, and there are traces of a uranium isotope at the Curie annex with a half-life of 4.5 billion years. “France’s nuclear industry is like a plane that took off without a landing strip,” says Yannick Rousselet, a Greenpeace campaign leader.

The lab’s main building is covered with dead vines, and the walls, flanking a busy four-lane avenue, are a magnet for graffiti artists. Although most sources of radiation were removed in 1992, town officials say far more must be done. A 1997 study concluded that pedestrians and ­residents of apartments just a few feet from the perimeter wall aren’t at risk of radiation poisoning, but officials say the place remains a hazard. A wake-up call came in 2010, when thieves broke in and stole copper wiring. Police who entered the confines, like the intruders, risked radiation exposure because they lacked protective garb—spurring protests from the police union. The cleanup has so far cost about €10 million, Métairie says, though the final bill will likely be much higher as the buildings are dismantled and the site is decontaminated in coming years. “We’re finally making progress, but it’s really slow,” he says.

Remediation is tough, because most of the lab’s scientists are long dead. (Curie herself died from a blood ailment linked to radiation poisoning a year after it opened.) Andra, the government agency that oversees radioactive waste, spent more than a decade cataloging what’s at Arcueil, finding radioactivity in solvents, papers, shelving, a furnace, the soil, and plants. “Knowledge of the work there is patchy, complicating the operation,” says Fabien Hubert, the Andra official in charge of waste that’s not from reactors.

Curie and her husband, Pierre, described how radium gives off heat and glows in the dark, pioneering its use as a cancer treatment. She won two Nobel prizes—one in physics and one in chemistry. In the 1920s her work captured the public’s imagination, leading to a craze for radium face creams, water fountains, razors, and even underwear—all aimed at treating ailments from hair loss to impotence to gout. Although most of those have long been proved bogus or toxic, radiotherapy remains a key cancer therapy, and Curie’s work led to breakthroughs in the use of X-rays. “Radium was a huge discovery,” Métairie says. “But radioactivity is a ­double-edged sword.”
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This story is from Bloomberg Businessweek’s special issue The Elements.

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