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Japan Crisis Heightens Fears Over U.S. MOX Fuel Plan

Mixed-oxide fuel derived from nuclear-weapon material has created unique dangers where it was in use at a disaster-stricken Japanese facility, intensifying safety concerns over a proposal to use the fuel at two U.S. atomic energy sites, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported on Wednesday (see GSN, Aug. 5, 2010).

The federal Tennessee Valley Authority might receive permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to fuel the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant in Tennessee and the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama with MOX material by 2018. MOX fuel is produced from weapon-usable plutonium.

The Browns Ferry site incorporates the reactor type also in use at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where multiple systems are in danger of meltdown (see related GSN story, today). A core meltdown in a General Electric Co. Mark 1 reactor has a 42 percent probability of allowing radioactive material to escape, according to an assessment by the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.

The Fukushima facility's No. 3 reactor was running on a fuel blend containing roughly 6 percent MOX material, according to government sources.

Airborne radioactive material released by the converted weapon material would pose greater health risks than vapors generated by other nuclear fuel types, said Edwin Lyman, a senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The number of latent cancer fatalities resulting from an accident could increase by as much as a factor of five for a full core of MOX fuel compared to the same accident with no MOX," Lyman said, adding the No. 3 reactor fuel blend at Fukushima "could cause a roughly 10 percent increase in latent cancer fatalities if there were a severe accident with core melt and containment breach."

The Tennessee Valley Authority defended its potential use of MOX fuel as a cost-cutting measure.

“We’re also trying to provide service to our customers, which includes low cost,” a TVA spokesman said. “But we will not use it if it’s obviously not safe.”

The Tennessee Valley Authority and wider energy sector might prove reluctant to act based on knowledge gained from Japan's nuclear crisis, Tennessee Sierra Club official Louise Gorenflo said on Tuesday.

“I don’t know how open TVA is to learning,” Gorenflo said. “It’s a human arrogance we have -- the idea that we are willing to use a technology that requires nature to behave in a certain way. The reality is that nature does not bend to human engineering. The lesson is that our technology needs to fit nature” (Pam Sohn, Chattanooga Times Free Press, March 16).

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