The following article was published in the March/April 1999 issue of Synergy. Synergy of the Carolinas - A journal of constructive change. Reprinted here with permission.

Plutonium in the Piedmont: The MOX program

Duke Power contracts with DOE to use plutonium-based mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) in reactors at McGuire and Catawba nuclear stations.

by Catherine Mitchell

A consortium of Duke Energy, Virginia Power and French nuclear fuel manufacturer Cogema are positioned to sign a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to participate in an experimental program - the first of its kind in the nation - to burn plutonium-enriched fuel at McGuire nuclear power plant north of Charlotte, Catawba Nuclear Plants I and II in Upstate South Carolina, and Virginia Power's North Anna site plant. The fuel, called MOX (mixed-oxide) combines the conventional uranium oxide powder with plutonium oxide powder, a far deadlier substance. It's never been used in civilian reactors.

This program developed in response to a joint agreement by the U.S. and Russian government to find a way to handle surplus plutonium from dismantled nuclear warheads - a toxic legacy of the Cold War.

The warhead dissassembly and plutonium processing necessary to create the fuel will take place at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, creating what some have called a "plutonium highway" in this Southeastern corridor of the United States, as the material is moved in various forms from site to site.

Duke Energy stresses they "haven't signed the contract yet," but theirs is the only consortium still in the running for the contract. (EDITOR'S NOTE: Shortly after this issue went to print, Duke signed the contract.)

Both proponents and foes of the MOX fuel plan agree on one goal: the desirability of rendering warhead plutonium into a form nonusable for weapons. The disagreement comes in how to accomplish that goal.

Proponents call the MOX plan safe and cost-effective. "We are not just going to jump into something without careful evaluation," says Duke Energy spokewoman Guynn Savage. "(The contract) will be based on our confidence that this particular program will be no different to the neighbnorhoods, to the communities that we serve, than using the uranium fuel that we use today."

But MOX opponents say there is a huge difference in not only the increased health dangers associated with plutonium use, but in major differences in the type of reactor necessary to safely handle the "hotter" fuel. The mixed-oxide fuel will greatly increase the stress on the reactor walls designed to burn uranium fuel, they say, substantially increasing the risk of an accident. Groups such as the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League locally and the Nuclear Control Institute and Nuclear Information Resource Services in Washington are calling for much more extensive investigation into the feasibility of this project and for open public discussion of these issues - especially in those communities more directly affected.

How did we end up here? During the 1950s, the U.S.and Soviet Union were busy building up their stockpiles of nuclear weapons. At the end of the Cold War, they found themselves with surpluses of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU), the two key materials for building nuclear weapons. In principle, the uranium poses a lesser problem because it can be blended down to the low-enriched uraniun used in nuclear reactors. A much more difficult proposition is converting the surplus plutonium into forms not usable for making nuclear weapons.

Plutonium disposal options

Plutonium is one of the deadliest substances know to man and possesses a radioactive half-life of 24,000 years, limiting options somewhat. The National Science Academies studied the problem and came up with a list of options for handling the disposition of the warhead material of both countries. After discarding such plans as shooting the hot stuff into space or burying it in ocean fissures, the study gradually narrowed to two recommendations. Of the two options currently under consideration, both require that the plutonium contained within the warheads be removed and converted into an oxide powder.

The MOX approach: Warheads would be transported to the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina for disassembly and conversion. Once the plutonium is removed from the warhead and formed into a powder, the conversion process involves mixing plutonium oxide powder with uranium oxide powder in the form of pellets, which are placed in long metal tubes to form fuel assemblies. These fuel assemblies are then transported to McGuire Nuclear Plant at Lake Norman and loaded into the core of the reactor for three to four years of irradiation. Afterward, the now highly radioactive fuel elements would be discharged from the core and placed in the reactor's spent fuel pool to be transported a third time and stored finally in a geologic repository.

The immobilization approach: Also referred to as vitrification. The plutonium oxide powder created at SRS would be mixed with molten glass and formed into glass marbles or blocks similar to a hockey puck and stored in stainless steel cans. These cans would then be placed in a larger stainless steel canister, which would be filled with another mixture of molten glass and extremely radioactive waste. After cooling, the canisters would be stored until final disposal in a geologic repository.

In theory, both methods would create highly radioactive material and would be lethal to anyone trying to steal it. Since the plutonium in both forms is mixed with waste, it would have to be chemically separated in a complex and expensive reprocessing to make the plutonium weapon-worthy again. Both approaches meet the National Academy of Sciences "spent-fuel standard" guidelines, making the warhead plutonium as difficult to access as the larger amounts of plutonium contained in radioactive spent fuel in civilian nuclear plants. But MOX fuel itself is not lethal until after it's burned in the reactor.

Proponents of the MOX plan point to Europe, where this fuel has been used in about 30 commercial nuclear units for a number of years. But detailed safety records of the companies involved in the US MOX plan - France-based Cogema - aren't available to the public in those countries and have not been made available for review in this country. S.C. Senator Paul Leventis, D-Sumter, is calling for public scrutiny of the environmental records of these companies. "I think their compliance records are fundamental information that we need. We can't just bury our heads in the sand," he says.

Opponents of the MOX fuel plan include independent and industry analysts and scientists who favor what they consider the safer, faster and more efficient and economical plan for immobilization or vitrification.

Using MOX fuel in civilian nuclear plants, they say, will create far greater health and public safety risks for surrounding communities than the use of conventional uranium fuel while offering no real benefits to the consumer or taxpayer. It will, however, substantially benefit the nuclear industry in the form of massive subsidies, at a time when pending energy industry deregulation will further push US nuclear companies into marginal or noncompetitive status.

The subsidies: DOE has budgeted $28.8 million in these initial stages to convert 36 tons of US-designated surplus plutonium from dismantled warheads into MOX fuel for use in these commercial reactors, but that's only the beginning. The financial estimate of the project runs into the billions, with the construction of the SRS fabrication plant alone costing over $1 billion. Add to that $900 million in fuel credit from DOE for the plutonium, as well as open-ended costs of direct subsidies for plutonium fuel. And last but not least, the $225 million recently budgeted by the US to upgrade the Russian reactors and MOX infrastructure - a cost the Russians can't afford.

The confusing part: Americans are being told that the US government is opting for the MOX program because the Russians won't consider any other option - but Russian officials "are saying that the US is pushing for the MOX program," according to Russian scientist and energy analyst Lydia Popova.

Concerns over MOX

Public health: In January, a Nuclear Control Institute study criticized the Department of Energy's Risk Assessment Evaluation. "The DOE severely underestimated the safety risks of using civilian power reactors to dispose of plutonium," says Dr. Edwin Lyman, an energy physicist and author of the study. Lyman, using the government's own calculation and risk-modeling techniques, concluded that twice as many cancer deaths would result from a reactor accident with plutonium fuel than conventional fuel: "The number of latent cancer fatalities after a severe reactor accident will be significantly greater."

Plutonium fuel would release a much larger burst of highly readioactive and toxic materials known as actinides including plutonium, americium, cesium and curium, he says. An estimated 1,430 to 6,165 additional cancer deaths could be expected depending on the type of accident and the amount of MOX fuel in use.

An Institute for Energy and Environmental Research study found that within a 1,000-mile radius of a plant, the number of "early" cancer fatalities among the public (those that will occur due to radiation exposures within one week after a severe accident) will be 81% to 96% greater on average for a plant with a full core of weapons-grade MOX fuel, and 27% to 32% greater for a plant with a one-third core of this type of MOX fuel, than for a plant using uranium fuel. In an area with a surrounding population density similar to that near Duke Power's Catawba and McGuire plants, the actual number of additional fatalities would be 1,430 to 6,165 if the plant had a full core of warhead-plutonium MOX fuel, and 477 to 2,055 if the plant had a one-third core of this fuel.

Equipment compatibility: Another concern raised by critics has to do with burning MOX fuel in reactors not designed to burn the "hotter" fuel. Tests have shown far greater stresses on the reactor walls when burning MOX fuel in reactors designed for uranium-based fuel, increasing the likelihood for an accident.

Economics: Serious questions have been raised around MOX fuel as to whether it can be produced cheaply enough to compete with other fuels. Critics of the plan point to extensive studies showing that it can't.

Uranium-based reactors are already facing competitiveness problems. Uranium prices, cheap fossil fuels, higher maintenance costs, waste disposal problems and others are undermining profits. In the US, deregulated industries will have real difficulty with marginal plants.

The additional costs of MOX operations such as additional costs of maintenance, security and modifications will create even more problems - and disposal costs could escalate sharply as more hot waste is generated and space for it grows increasingly precious.

For MOX operations to be feasible, they must depend on both free MOX fuel and subsidies from the government. In one DOE study revealed at the National Conference of State Legislatures in 1996, a list of charges was compiled that DOE would be willing to cover in return for a utility's use of MOX fuel: The costs were estimated to be approximately $825 million per reactor through 2024. Part of this figure involved the waiver of $310 million per reactor of the utility's contribution to the Nuclear Waste Fund.

Liability: Mary Olsen of the Nuclear Information Resource Service points out that liability factors involving the transportation of this material is also a concern. Once the material leaves one of the plants for its next destination, the burden of liability shifts back to the taxpayer and the problems associated with accident or act of terrorism would fall most immediately into the lap of the particular town or rural area affected. Questions of adequate training and equipment for first emergency responders come into play as material is transported over long distances.

The federal Price-Anderson Act was created to subsidize the amount of indemnity insurance available to individual reactors. Private industry capped the amount at $60 million - a fraction of the cost of a nuclear accident in terms of damage to people and property, analysts say. The US government added an additional $500 million per reactor to this figure.

Threat of terrorism: Concerns raised by critics include the increased security risks associated with more frequent transportation of plutonium. Also, in the past, this material has been in the hands of the US Armed Forces. Will industry security be adequate to protect this material at the same level? Will utilities spend the money necessary to make sure that the material doesn't end up in the wrong hands? Arjun Makijani of the Institute of Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) says it's possible for a well-equipped terrorist group to make a powerful homemade atom bomb using only a few kilograms of stolen plutonium, making it a highly attractive target for thieves.

What's being done?

On Feb. 22, a coalition of concerned environmental groups working on the issue held their own public citizens hearing in Charlotte, after repeatedly requesting a recognized hearing from DOE and repeatedly being turned down.

The hearing, sponsored by the Nuclear Information Resource Service and the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL), included speakers from the Nuclear Control Institute, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Hanford Action, and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. A public comment period followed the panel discussion, and The entire event was videotaped and sent to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson - including a public comment period in which 100% of the speakers were adamantly opposed to MOX. Duke Energy representatives were not in attendance.

In March, Earth Island Institute's Center for Safe Energy, along with BREDL, brought a delegation of six Russian anti-nuclear activists to Charlotte and Asheville. The Russians, all scientists and engineers with experience in nuclear power came to the area to share information on the development of an independent, democratic non-governmental sector in Russia working toward international nonproliferation policy and the phase-out of nuclear power. An alliance was formed during the visit with the Southern Anti-Plutonium Campaign to work together to support each country's efforts.

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Source: 1999 Synergy