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Duke Energy Abandons Plutonium Fuel (MOX) Testing Program in South Carolina Reactor

Posted Nov. 12, 2009 / Posted by: KTrout

 
For Immediate Release
 
Contact:
Tom Clements, 803-834-3084
Nick Berning, 202-222-0748

Duke Energy Abandons Plutonium Fuel (MOX) Testing Program in South Carolina Reactor

Utility’s decision to abort test during reactor outage is a huge setback for federal Department of Energy

Columbia, SC – Friends of the Earth has learned that Duke Energy has taken a decisive step which signals its complete withdrawal from the Department of Energy’s controversial program to test the potential use of surplus military plutonium as fuel for commercial nuclear reactors.
 
In a stunning and silent move, Duke Energy has decided not to reload experimental plutonium fuel (mixed oxide fuel, MOX) test assemblies into its Catawba Unit 1 reactor during the current fuel outage which began on November 6. This move is a major setback to the Department of Energy’s goal of using MOX fuel in commercial reactors. Such an outage is a normal procedure, as the radioactive uranium fuel must be withdrawn from the reactor core every 18 months.
 
This refueling outage began two weeks early due to a reactor cooling pump leak which had to be repaired and which, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was not a reportable event because the radioactive water leakage was within technical specifications.   
 
“Duke’s total abandonment of the plutonium fuel program should be a wake-up call to the Energy Department. Plans to force the use of this costly and dangerous fuel in U.S. reactors must be immediately halted,” said Tom Clements, Southeastern Nuclear Campaign Coordinator for Friends of the Earth. “That it took Duke a full ten years to pull out of the MOX program is a good indicator of more trouble ahead with respect to costs, schedule and safety. It’s not too late to pull the plug on the entire misguided program, halt construction of an expensive MOX plant under construction at the Savannah River Site and pursue a cheaper, safer and faster alternative: management of plutonium as nuclear waste.”
 
Duke’s decision to abandon the first-ever testing of MOX fuel made from surplus weapons plutonium is a huge setback to the Department of Energy, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will now not be able to license full-scale MOX use. In order to be used with uranium fuel in a nuclear reactor, the MOX fuel must perform acceptably during three 18-month test irradiation cycles. But the four MOX “lead test assemblies” being tested at the Catawba reactor were withdrawn from the reactor in May 2008 after only two cycles due to poor performance and placed in the plant’s spent fuel storage pool. Five rods were withdrawn from one fuel assembly and shipped to Oak Ridge National Lab for examination, but no test results have been made public.
 
Duke Energy, under contract with Shaw Areva MOX Services to conduct the MOX test, has apparently now scrapped not only the MOX reload but also halted reconsideration of any long-term MOX use in its Catawba and McGuire reactors. Duke had signed a contract in 1999 “to purchase mixed-oxide fuel for use in the McGuire and Catawba nuclear reactors” and to conduct a test with the experimental fuel.
 
Use of MOX fuel has long drawn criticism from non-proliferation and environmental groups due to the costs, safety concerns and proliferation risks involved in processing, transporting and using such fuel. In letters sent on November 10, 2009, Friends of the Earth demanded assurances from the NRC that the aborted partial MOX test will not be used as a justification for licensing MOX use and called on the Department of Energy to halt construction of the $5 billion MOX factory now underway at its Savannah River Site in South Carolina until such time as full MOX use in nuclear reactors is licensed and MOX reactors are contracted. 
 
The test assemblies were manufactured in France in a now-closed facility at Cadarache, leaving the Department of Energy with no fabrication option for new tests of the experimental fuel. A repeat of the MOX test would take approximately seven years, including NRC licensing procedures, fuel fabrication, irradiation (three 18-month cycles, taking a total of 54 months), and post-irradiation examination.
 
Now, with the loss of Duke, the Department of Energy has no reactors lined up to use the MOX product from the MOX factory under construction at its Savannah River Site. DOE claims that it is talking to various nuclear utilities about MOX use, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, but it is unknown if those utilities are aware that they would have to conduct a lengthy test no matter the reactor type they might propose for the program. Additionally, MOX alters reactor performance and would result in more release of radiation in a severe accident.
 
Acting in the public interest, Friends of the Earth and the Union of Concerned Scientists revealed on August 4, 2008 that the MOX test fuel had been prematurely withdrawn from the Catawba reactor. The Department of Energy never issued a statement about that test failure and Friends of the Earth now calls on the Department to issue a full explanation of the failed test and Duke’s abandonment of the program.
 
Resources:
 
November 10 letter to the Department of Energy:
 
November 10 letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission:
 
Notes:

1.  Pertinent FOE news releases on MOX:
 
March 13, 2009: “DOE’s Plans to Use Plutonium Fuel (MOX) Jolted by Duke Energy’s Withdrawal,” http://www.foe.org/plutonium-fuel-plan-hits-roadblock
 
August 4, 2008 “Nuclear Fuel Test Failure should Trigger Suspension of Weapons-Grade Plutonium Fuel Use,” http://www.foe.org/nuclear-fuel-test-failure-raises-concerns
 
September 3, 2009: Energy Department Forced to Release Photos of MOX Transport Trucks, http://www.foe.org/photos-nuke-transport-trucks-released
 
2. Friends of the Earth has filed Freedom of Information Act requests concerning examination of the MOX test rods at Oak Ridge National Lab and also about the interest of the Tennessee Valley Authority in MOX use. However, DOE has staunchly refused to respond to the requests, contrary to openness directives by DOE Secretary Chu and Attorney General Holder.

 

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