Critics Lash South Carolina MOX Fuel Plant

Activists on Monday denounced a plan to convert excess weapons plutonium to nuclear power plant fuel at a facility under construction in South Carolina, contending the effort was expensive, unsafe and primarily a financial boon for the French atomic firm Areva, Agence France-Presse reported (see GSN, April 4).

The Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site is "an expensive effort that enriches contractors, led by the French government-owned company Areva," said Tom Clements, with Friends of the Earth.

"It is primarily because of Areva's influence inside the Department of Energy that the U.S. is pursuing a plutonium fuel program and it's because of Areva's influence that there's a push for the U.S. to also reprocess commercial spent fuel to remove plutonium, like France does," Clements said.

The MOX facility is intended to support a 2000 agreement in which Russia and the United States each agreed to eliminate 34 metric tons of excess weapons plutonium, according to the Areva website (see GSN, March 4). The 600,000-square-foot site could process 3.5 metric tons of plutonium annually, and it is expected to run into the 2030s under a 20-year license, the firm said.

The facility began to be built in August 2007 following a number of setbacks, says a new report by the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a coalition of antinuclear organizations. The project's expense has reached $4.9 billion to date, and the effort has outstripped its anticipated budget three times over, Clements said.

Washington has not reassessed the project in light of the crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Clements added (see related GSN story, today). One reactor at the Japanese facility used MOX fuel, the ANA report notes (see GSN, March 30).

"As plutonium leaks from the damaged reactors in Japan, the U.S. Department of Energy continues planning for the use of dangerous mixed-oxide fuel in U.S. nuclear reactors of the same design as the Fukushima reactors in Japan," Clements said. Mixed-oxide fuel makes "reactors harder to control and, in the case of a severe accident, the radiation plutonium releases will be worse than uranium fuel," he said.

The plant's opponents have called for the weapon material to be sealed in glass and maintained as waste. That method is "cheaper, quicker and safer," the ANA report contends.

Areva said there is "not a significant difference" between MOX fuel created from weapons plutonium and MOX fuel created from reused nuclear materials.

Mixed-oxide fuel produced from nonweapon materials is used "in about 40 reactors in five different countries, and the performance of MOX fuel has been widely tested," spokesman Jarret Adams said.

The South Carolina plant being built by Shaw Areva MOX Services is an "important project to help convert former weapons material into usable material for American power plants," Adams said. "It removes former weapons material from possible future use" (Agence France-Presse/Google News, April 4).

April 5, 2011
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Activists on Monday denounced a plan to convert excess weapons plutonium to nuclear power plant fuel at a facility under construction in South Carolina, contending the effort was expensive, unsafe and primarily a financial boon for the French atomic firm Areva, Agence France-Presse reported (see GSN, April 4).