The dangers of MOX plutonium fuel and nuclear reprocessing

DUKE POWERS PLAN TO USE BOMB-PLUTONIUM FUEL CONCEALS HIDDEN DANGERS AND COSTS Steven Dolley Nuclear Control Institute   October 18, 2000

 “….MOX fuel poses a grave safety threat. Dr. Edwin Lyman, NCI Scientific Director, conducted a MOX fuel safety study using the same computer codes employed by DOE and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Dr. Lymans study concluded that, in the event of a severe accident resulting in a large radioactive release, an average of 25% more people would die of cancer if the reactor were using a partial core of plutonium-MOX fuel, as opposed to a full core of conventional uranium fuel. DOE itself has concurred with many of Dr. Lymans findings.

Dr. Lyman also found that the impact of MOX fuel on certain reactor characteristics might also increase the chance that such a severe accident would occur. DOE and Duke dismiss such accidents as extremely improbable—but it must be remembered that the accidents that took place at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the Tokai nuclear-fuel plant in Japan last September all had been similarly dismissed as highly unlikely or even impossible events.

  •  MOX fuel exposes Duke to potentially enormous future costs. The factories in which plutonium MOX fuel is fabricated are susceptible to problems caused by hold up of significant amounts of plutonium that get caught in process equipment rather than end up in the final fuel product. The Plutonium Fuel Production Facility (PFPF), a MOX factory in Japan, accumulated a hold-up of more than 70 kilograms of plutonium during its first several years of operation. International nuclear regulators required Japan to clean out the plant and upgrade its equipment at a total estimated cost of over $100 million. When queried by the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) at a February meeting with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff, Duke technical representatives claimed they had never heard of this problem. The PFPF plant was based upon technology from Cogema, the same French company that is designing the MOX plant which will fabricate fuel for Dukes reactors. Duke could therefore confront similar problems and expenses at the DCS consortiums MOX fuel-fabrication factory.

Because plutonium MOX fuel has never been used commercially in the United States and is now generating concerns and controversy in nations where it is being produced and used, Dukes MOX fuel program will be subject to greater scrutiny and possibly a heavier regulatory burden from NRC. For example, recent revelations that British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL) cut costs by making up fictional quality-control data for MOX fuel produced for Japanese, German and Swiss utility customers has resulted in those customers canceling orders for MOX fuel. This is likely to result in NRC imposing costly quality-control requirements on MOX fuel fabricated for Dukes reactors.

MOX fuel using warhead plutonium is experimental and untested. Duke claims that many years of experience in European reactors shows MOX to be safe and effective. But the plutonium in European MOX fuel was recovered from used nuclear-power plant fuel, not from nuclear bombs. Warhead plutonium is of a different isotopic composition, responds differently in reactors, and hasnever been tested on a commercial scale. DOE began test irradiation of a few MOX pellets in an experimental reactor in early 1998, and will not have any results for years. Warhead-plutonium MOX fuel remains an unproven technology with significant risks associated with its use.

 

  • MOX fuel violates U.S. nuclear non-proliferation efforts. Using plutonium MOX fuel in U.S. reactors would contradict a 25-year U.S. nuclear non-proliferation initiative, begun in the Ford and Carter administrations, to oppose plutonium fuel cycles at home and abroad. The Duke MOX program would encourage Europe and Japan to accelerate programs to recover hundreds of tons of bomb-usable plutonium from the spent fuel of their nuclear reactors, creating a grave proliferation and terrorism risk. Dukes MOX program also would serve as an example to nations in volatile regions (including Taiwan, South Korea, and Iran) to pursue plutonium fuel cycles, risking regional instability by establishing a pathway to nuclear weapons. MOX fuel is not needed to dispose of plutonium from dismantled warheads. DOE is actually pursuing a dual-track approach to warhead plutonium disposition, and plans to dispose of some 17 tons of plutonium directly as waste by immobilizing it in steel cylinders filled with glassified, highly radioactive waste, instead of turning it into MOX fuel. Technical studies by the National Academy of Sciences and DOE conclude that this immobilization technology is feasible, and could be utilized to dispose of all surplus warhead plutonium in the United States and Russia. Such immobilization could be done at the Savannah River Site utilizing existing high-level waste. There is no arms-control justification for the riskier MOX approach, but it is supported by the nuclear industry as a way to subsidize nuclear utilities at taxpayer expense…..  http://www.nci.org/k-m/mox-fs-101900.htm
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