U.S. Moves Closer to MOX Nuclear Plants

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 23, 2002 (ENS) - The Department of Energy has decided to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus, weapons grade plutonium by turning it into fuel for nuclear reactors. The move overturns a decision by the previous administration to use a portion of the plutonium as fuel, while permanently immobilizing the remainder in glass to prevent its potential use in nuclear weapons.


Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin crafted an agreement in June 2000 for each country to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus weapons grade plutonium (Photo by David Scull, courtesy The White House)
The controversial proposal is sure to bring a storm of criticism from anti-nuclear activists, who warn that the longer the plutonium remains in its current form, the more likely it is that terrorists could steal enough of the radioactive material to make a nuclear bomb.

MOX fuel is a mixture of about three percent plutonium oxide with about 97 percent uranium oxide, which can be used in nuclear reactors to produce electricity. Such fuel is routinely used for power generation in Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland.

The decision to turn the plutonium into mixed oxide fuel (MOX) for nuclear reactors follows an "exhaustive" review of nuclear nonproliferation programs, the Energy Department (DOE) said today.

"Today's announcement is central to enhancing our national security and advancing our nonproliferation goals," said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. "This path forward is a workable, technologically possible, and affordable solution, that meets our commitments to environmental improvement, energy and national security, and the nuclear nonproliferation policies agreed to by the United States and Russia."

In September 2000, the United States and Russia signed the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, committing each country to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium. The agreement did not specify how the nations were to eliminate their plutonium stockpiles, and both countries have been studying the possibility of using the material as fuel.


A MOX pellet press at the Melox facility in Marcoule, France (Photo courtesy Cogema)
Under the Clinton administration, the U.S. endorsed a dual track approach to dispose of the plutonium, including turning some of the material into MOX reactor fuel and immobilizing the remaining plutonium in radioactive glass logs for long term storage.

Today, the DOE announced that eliminating the immobilization option will save the U.S. almost $2 billion, decrease plutonium storage costs, and hasten the closure of the agency's former nuclear weapons complex sites.

"There is an increased urgency to move forward with the elimination of surplus weapons grade material like plutonium," Abraham said. "Focusing on proven technologies to eliminate this material, reducing costs in the process, and keeping our commitment to national security and the clean up of former weapons sites is the right path to follow," Abraham added, noting that European countries have used MOX fuel in their reactors for over 20 years.

But the track record of European MOX production has been spotty at best, marred by allegations of data falsification and hints of environmental catastrophe.


The entrance to Cogema's MOX fuel fabrication plant at Cadarache (Photo courtesy Commissariat l'Énergie Atomique)
France's MOX plant in Cadarache, run by nuclear firm Cogema, is under increasing pressure to shut down since a study by France's nuclear safety institute showed that the plant is at risk of serious damage from a major earthquake. The plant has also been plagued by allegations of gaps in its safety records.

The United Kingdom's (UK) Sellafield MOX plant in Cumbria began incorporating plutonium just last month, five years after the plant was finished. Operator British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL) fought an increasingly bitter battle to win operating approval since its commercial reputation was savaged in 1999 by a data falsification scandal related to the size of MOX pellets it produced.

Ireland claims the Sellafield plant will lead to an unacceptable increase in radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea as well as posing security risks. It also argues, as do British environmental groups, that the UK government has bent European Union law to approve the plant.

Bryony Worthington, energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth, has called MOX fuel "unpopular, unsafe and uneconomic."

The Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), a Washington DC based nonproliferation group, released a study in 1999 which concluded that using MOX fuel in a nuclear power plant raises the cancer risks associated with containment failure or core meltdown accidents at such plants.

More deaths would result because the quantities of plutonium and other highly radiotoxic elements in the cores of MOX fueled plants are significantly greater than in plants fueled only with conventional low enriched uranium, the NCI study says.


Sellafield Nuclear Plant on the Cumbrian coast of the Irish Sea. There are 3,500 radiation sources on the site kept in 171 special buildings. (Photo courtesy BNFL)
Today, NCI Executive Director Tom Clements said the DOE's plan to rely on the MOX fuel option for plutonium disposal "runs headlong into a minefield of legal and economic hurdles, as well as posing safety and security risks."

"The Bush Administration has summarily rejected the cheapest, safest and most secure option - the 'immobilization' approach of mixing plutonium with highly radioactive waste for direct, final disposal," said Clements. "Over eight years of DOE research documenting the feasibility and cost effectiveness of immobilization has been thrown out the window in deference to pro-plutonium forces in the nuclear industry and bureaucracy. This decision was formulated behind closed doors and is a full reversal of earlier DOE policy on plutonium disposition, a policy developed through an open public process."

The approach is inconsistent with the DOE's January 2000 Record of Decision on plutonium disposition, and thus faces major hurdles under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the NCI said.

"DOE's reversal also complicates efforts to meet deadlines specified in the September 2000 U.S.-Russian plutonium disposition agreement," Clements added. "The resulting lengthy delays will require indefinite storage of plutonium at the Savannah River Site in a facility not designed for secure, long term plutonium storage."

Federal budget legislation bars constructing and operating a plutonium MOX fuel fabrication plant in the U.S. if Russia does not also construct and operate a MOX plant, Clements noted. The DOE said today that the Departments of State and Energy will work with their counterparts in Russia to achieve the disposition of Russian surplus plutonium through the MOX process.

But "Russia's plutonium disposition program is going nowhere," Clements pointed out. "The Russian government cannot begin to shoulder the enormous costs involved, and despite years of fund raising efforts by DOE, Western governments have proven unwilling to foot the bill."


The McGuire Nuclear Power Plant in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina is one of two that would be converted to burn MOX fuel (Photo courtesy NRC)
Numerous hurdles remain to securing licenses for the various aspects of the MOX program. Opposition by public interest groups has led to the scheduling of public hearings by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for October 2002. The groups also plan to challenge the license amendment required for use of MOX in Duke Power's Catawba and McGuire reactors.

NCI also questioned the DOE's projected costs for the MOX project. The agency said today that the MOX conversion process is expected to cost $3.8 billion over 20 years, including the construction of two new conversion facilities at the Savannah River Site, including disassembly and fuel fabrication facilities.

Last year, the DOE estimated that the MOX disposition program would cost $4.6 billion, with cost of the "dual track" program at $6.6 billion. Given that almost $700 million has already been sunk into the program, only $3 billion is left for remaining development, construction and operational costs, a figure which Clements called "pure fantasy."

"DOE must explain to Congress and the public why they anticipate that it will now cost about 20 percent less to manufacture about 25 percent more MOX," Clements insisted. "After the Enron scandal, the American economy has already experienced enough 'stupid accounting tricks' for one year."

More information on plutonium disposition and the risks of MOX fuel are available on the NCI website at: http://www.nci.org/nci-wpu.htm