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France Is Still Cleaning Up Marie Curie’s Nuclear Waste via Bloomberg Business Week

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

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. 


 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. 


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. 

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