Nuclear Industry Still Skeptical of MOX fuel

The Byron Nuclear Generating Station near Byron, Illinois. Photo: Bill Tracey
The Byron Nuclear Generating Station near Byron, Illinois. Photo: Bill Tracey

A $5 billion American-taxpayer-funded plant being built by the French-government-controlled company AREVA has no buyer yet for the controversial fuel

In the quest to convert plutonium from 170,000 nuclear warheads into usable forms of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has a vexing political problem on its hands. Virtually no commercial nuclear power company wants to touch the stuff.

Critics say MOX fuel is potentially more dangerous because it burns hotter and contains more plutonium than traditional low-enriched uranium used in nuclear power plants. Fuel rods made of MOX fuel pose greater dangers for storage, too, because they take longer to cool down. As seen in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, pools of spent fuel rods can pose an equally dangerous hazard as the reactors themselves.

So far, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) – the nation’s largest government-owned utility – is the likeliest candidate to use MOX fuel in possibly up to five of its nuclear reactors by 2017 at the earliest. If TVA accepts MOX fuel from a plant under construction at DOE’s Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina, it will mark the first commercial use of weapons grade plutonium for energy in the world.

Two TVA reactors are located at the Sequoyah facility outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, and three at Browns Ferry in northern Alabama, where the TVA recently issued an emergency alert when storms and tornados damaged electrical transmission lines to the facility. The Browns Ferry plant also did not do very well in a recent safety inspection.These five reactors could account for the vast majority of MOX fuel expected to come from the $5 billion SRS fabrication plant, according to DOE officials. But TVA has not made a decision yet, says Terry Johnson, the company spokesperson.

“TVA wants to make sure it will be safe to use and beneficial for our customers,” Johnson says.

After public meetings last year, TVA now must complete an environmental impact assessment. Then it must amend its license with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Part of the company’s decision will come down to whether the MOX plant, built by Shaw AREVA MOX Services, a consortium of the American construction company Shaw and the French conglomerate AREVA, will produce fuel as planned. The program has already been plagued by setbacks and an escalating budget.

Watch this video for an introduction to Mox in America.

In April, DOE filed plans to amend the MOX plant’s design in order to make fuel capable of running in boiling water reactors, more common among newer plants. Original designs called for only accommodating pressurized water reactors, but the government clearly needs more options. The changes to the MOX plant are said to be minimal, but critics say it is one more aspect of the project that was overlooked before construction began.

Reactors at Browns Ferry and at Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station in southeastern Washington, the only other plant openly contemplating MOX, are all boiling water reactors. The Energy Northwest plant is directly adjacent to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which is still coping with a legacy of massive amounts of Cold War nuclear waste. So far they, too, have not made a decision.

“We are considering joining a feasibility study into the potential use of MOX fuel at Columbia,” says Energy Northwest spokesperson Rochelle Olson. “Any decision to move forward with actually using MOX fuel at Columbia Generating Station would be preceded by public dialogue and will not be undertaken lightly or quickly.”

In the Pacific Northwest

Internal documents obtained by the conservation and anti-nuclear group Friends of the Earth reveal the power company is looking into testing MOX fuel made at Pacific Northwest National Laboratories in partnership with TVA.

Tom Clements, with Friends of the Earth, says the nation’s stockpile of weapons grade plutonium should be immobilized safely underground, not made into MOX fuel. Though MOX fuel has been used in nuclear reactors around the world, including Japan’s Number 3 reactor at Fukushima, MOX fuel made from weapons grade plutonium has never been used commercially

“It’s a noble goal to get the plutonium in a form not to be used [as weapons], but they’ve chosen the most expensive, most dangerous, most proliferation prone option, which is MOX,” says Clements who lives in South Carolina where the MOX fabrication plant is located. “They should have chosen a cheaper option, which is immobilizing the waste.”

Another anti-nuclear group, Heart of America Northwest, is suing Energy Northwest for information redacted from those internal documents presumably related to costs of the MOX fuel tests. Critics want to know the true cost of the MOX program on ratepayers.

“We suspect it goes far beyond the statutory exemptions,” says Gerry Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest. “We’re concerned whether they fully disclosed to their member utilities what the liabilities and risks would be.”

According to a summary of the program released as part of the records request, Energy Northwest officials believe MOX is not any more dangerous than traditional nuclear fuel.

“We believe that the MOX pins will have little actual impact on the operation of the Columbia Generating Station,” the summary states. “Rather, we see this as a management policy decision on whether or not to be one of the leaders in pursuing the use of MOX.”

A 2009 internal email from an Energy Northwest senior engineer in charge of fuel management reveals that company officials were somewhat skittish about going public with the idea. Even though the plan was discussed in public board meetings, few in the public were aware of it.

They “don’t want any unexpected press releases about burning MOX fuel,” the email says. That same official went on to write that DOE’s lack of utilities interested in using MOX fuel “doesn’t look good politically.”

Tests at Duke Disputed

In 2006, Duke Energy became the first company in the world to test MOX fuel from weapons grade plutonium in one of its reactors. The particular fuel assembly came from U.S. weapons material shipped to an AREVA factory in La Hague, France, which no longer operates.

Rita Sipe, spokesperson for Duke, says the tests went well. Duke ran four test assemblies of MOX fuel in its Catabwa reactor for two cycles of 18 months each. They had an option to put them back in for another cycle, Sipe says, but they declined to do so because there was some additional expansion in the fuel assembly skeleton.

“We felt the MOX fuel is safe,” Sipe says. “It’s a proven technology. We are supportive of the project in this country. We did observe some growth in the fuel assemblies that was not what we anticipated, but it did not affect the safety of it.”

Catawba Nuclear Station. Photo: Civilengtiger / Wikicommons
Catawba Nuclear Station. Photo: Civilengtiger / Wikicommons
Ordinarily, uranium fuel stays in a reactor for three cycles or close to five years. The Catabwa reactor holds a total of 193 fuel assemblies each comprised of a bundle of fuel rods about 12 feet long. The fuel assemblies, submerged under water, are rearranged between each cycle and then removed for storage, usually in spent fuel pools for 10 to 20 years.

Sipe says the contract with Shaw AREVA MOX Services ended in 2008 because the parties could not reach final agreement on new terms, like when the fuel would be available and how much it would cost.

“There was no reliance on a fuel supply,” Sipe says. “We needed to know when it was going to be available. We let them know we are open to a new proposal from them, but right now that hasn’t happened, so we are not involved in the project.”

Clements calls Duke’s withdrawal and its choice not to continue the test for a third cycle a major setback.

“They said the MOX fuel pellets performed okay, but they’ve released no data on that,” Clements says. “They’ve been saying that since the middle of 2008. It’s been three years and they have not produced the scientific data. So I don’t take them at their word that the test was good with the MOX pellets.”

Following the test at Catawba, Duke sent the spent fuel for analysis to the Oakridge National Laboratories. But, so far, no report has been released.

Bruce Brevard, the Oakridge MOX program manager, says the final report should be out by this summer. Oakridge did release three technical papers about the tests at conferences in 2009 and 2010 of the American Nuclear Society. Brevard says there is no significant difference between MOX fuel and low enriched fuel.

All nuclear reactors contain plutonium, and increased plutonium in MOX fuel should not cause any greater alarm when those rods are irradiated within reactors, Brevard says. They do, however, require more care in their production. As for the expansion of the fuel assembly, Brevard says it does not raise safety concerns either. Operators should take extra precaution when handling the material. Unlike uranium fuel pellets, MOX pellets should not be handled with bare hands. And because it stays hotter longer, temporary storage in spent fuel pools could be more challenging.

“We found nothing other than what we expected to find,” Brevard says. “They performed very well. I’m sure AREVA will tell the world that.”

The National Nuclear Security Administration did not respond to calls about the MOX program.

“This was supposed to be about nonproliferation,” Clements says. (The State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation supports the MOX fuel project as the country’s disposition path for surplus weapons grade plutonium to meet international treaty obligations.) “But now it’s just about spending money.”