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US Plans to Use Old Nuclear Warheads to Power Civilian Reactors


September 10, 2012
Adam Smith / The News Courier

The US wants to use 34 metric tons of old nuclear warheads to power civilian nuclear reactors. Critics are concerned that the mixed-oxide fuel contains weapons-grade plutonium that has never been used in a commercial boiling water reactor. "TVA officials are misrepresenting the truth," says nuclear critic Tom Clements. "They're talking about reactor-grade plutonium, and this is weapons-grade plutonium. It's very high in 239, which is what causes the (nuclear) explosion."

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Meeting on Browns Ferry Plutonium Plan Thursday
Adam Smith / The News Courier - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

ATHENS (September 9, 2012) -- The United States currently has about 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium it has committed to dispose of as part of a nuclear weapons proliferation agreement with Russia.

One possible way of disposing of the nuclear agent is to irradiate it and use it as fuel in nuclear reactors, including Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Athens. It is this proposal that will bring officials from the US Department of Energy to Limestone County Thursday evening to hear public comments from residents.

A public meeting will be held from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday in the conference room of Calhoun Community College's Aerospace Training Center. Representatives with the Tennessee Valley Authority will also be present.

"To reduce the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, the US Department of Energy is engaged in a program to disposition US surplus, weapons-usable plutonium in a safe, secure, and environmentally sound manner, by converting such plutonium into proliferation-resistant forms that can never again be readily used in nuclear weapons," said a statement from Josh McConaha, director of public affairs for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

In July, the DOE posted a draft environmental impact statement in the Federal Register on the MOX proposal, giving the public a chance to comment on the proposal. That public comment period will close on Sept. 25.

"The MOX Fuel Alternative is DOE's Preferred Alternative for surplus plutonium disposition," states a section of the impact statement. "TVA does not have a preferred alternative at this time regarding whether to pursue irradiation of MOX fuel in TVA reactors and which reactors might be used for this purpose."

In February of last year, TVA signed a letter of intent with AREVA expressing the utility's mutual desire to begin discussions concerning the potential use of mixed-oxide fuel in TVA nuclear plants. The fuel would originate from a $5 billion fabrication facility being built at the US Department of Energy's Savannah River site in Aiken, S.C.

TVA spokesman Ray Golden said the MOX proposal would have to meet three criteria before the utility would consider using the materials in reactors. Those criteria include being operationally and environmentally safe, economically beneficial to TVA's customers and can be licensed by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

TVA believes MOX could supply low-cost fuel for about two decades if fully implemented.

Golden said previous scoping sessions on the use of MOX resulted in concern from external stakeholders and elected officials who felt they had not been fully briefed by the TVA. A previous meeting on the subject was held at Calhoun in 2010.

"We're hopeful people will have heard more about this," Golden said. "Until such time that TVA takes it to the next level and makes some type of decision, it's really something significantly off in the future, the earliest being the 2018-2019 timeframe."

Another group, however, believes the use of MOX in nuclear reactors could be much later. Tom Clements, nonproliferation policy director for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability believes the tests for MOX could last up until 2025.

He referenced a meeting held August 8 in which NRC staff members were informed by Global Nuclear Fuels that MOX intended for use in boiling water reactors would need to undergo extensive testing, significantly delaying full-scale MOX production and use.

The News Courier was unable to make contact with NRC officials in Washington on Friday for further verification.

"This will have big schedule implications for the MOX plant, huge cost implications and could impact if the program can be carried on at Browns Ferry," Clements said. "The DOE refuses to clarify why there's a need for testing the MOX fuel. The environmental (impact statement) does not advance the public's understanding of this program and simply raises more questions."

Though TVA has not committed to using MOX, Golden pointed out that mixed-oxide was used in two trial runs in a reactor owned by Duke Energy, but added a third test was scuttled.

A fact sheet released in July by TVA describes mixed-oxide fuel as a mixture of approximately 95 percent non-fissionable U-238 uranium oxide and about 5 percent plutonium oxide that replaces the fissionable U-235 typically used in commercial nuclear fuel. The sheet also states that plutonium is a byproduct of the uranium fission process in all commercial nuclear power plants. It remains within the fuel pellets where, like U-235, it helps to produce electricity.

"Mixed oxide fuel performs in a manner similar to conventional uranium fuel and has been successfully used for more than 30 years in European commercial nuclear reactors," states the TVA fact sheet.

Clements said mixed-oxide fuel containing weapons-grade plutonium has never been used in a commercial boiling water reactor, but Golden disagrees with that assessment. He referred the News Courier to officials with Duke Energy for more information on the previous MOX tests, but a call left with a spokesperson was not returned Friday.

"TVA officials are misrepresenting the truth," Clements said. "They're talking about reactor-grade plutonium, and this is weapons-grade plutonium. It's very high in 239, which is what causes the (nuclear) explosion."

The NRC is regulating the construction of the MOX plant in South Carolina, but it will have no other involvement in the matter until TVA applies for a license to use the fuel.

"There's no contract between the MOX facility and TVA, so there's no role for us as of yet," said NRC Region II spokesman Joey Ledford. "(TVA) would have to get a license amendment from us to use MOX in any of the reactors. The MOX plant is still four years away from completion, so this is something that's way down the road."

(c) 2012 The News Courier (Athens, Ala.) Visit The News Courier (Athens, Ala.) at enewscourier.com Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

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