March 1999

Nuclear Control Institute (Washington DC) Condemms "Wasteful and Reckless" Plutonium Fuel Deal

[Posted 22/03/1999]

Contract Award for Mixed-Oxide Fuel Use in U.S. Nuclear Reactors Will Waste Millions, Increase Health and Security Risks WASHINGTON, DC — Warning that the unprecedented use of warhead plutonium fuel in U.S. nuclear reactors may ultimately require hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies to nuclear utilities and greatly increase the cancer risk to the public from a severe accident, the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) today condemned the award of a $130 million Department of Energy (DOE) contract for mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication and irradiation services to an international consortium. The consortium, which includes the utilities Duke Power and Virginia Power, and the fuel fabricators Cogema and Belgonucléaire (based in France and Belgium respectively), proposes to build a MOX fuel fabrication plant, most likely at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and to irradiate the fuel in the Catawba reactors in South Carolina, the McGuire reactors in North Carolina and the North Anna reactors in Virginia.

Duke Power is seriously underplaying the safety risks associated with using plutonium fuel in its nuclear plants. According to a study released by NCI in January, the use of a one-third core of warhead plutonium fuel in U.S. nuclear reactors could result in a 37% increase in cancer risk to the public the event of a severe accident. Plutonium fuel has also been observed to be more vulnerable to rupture than uranium fuel under certain accident conditions.

"A nuclear reactor using MOX fuel contains greater quantities of plutonium and other hazardous actinides than one using only uranium fuel," said NCI Scientific Director Dr. Edwin Lyman. "In the event of a containment failure or bypass accident, releases of these additional actinides could cause hundreds to thousands of additional cancer deaths among the public in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and the Washington, D.C. area.

"While Duke Power claims that the use of MOX in France is safe, it does not plan to employ even the minimal safety adaptations used in France. It does not intend to install additional control rods in its reactors, or to place limits on the irradiation time of the plutonium fuel compared to uranium fuel, both of which are done in France. Duke is cutting corners here in a way which could seriously impact safety," said Dr. Lyman.

"It is especially ironic that this contract is being awarded only days before the twentieth anniversary of the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident," said Dr. Lyman. "Instead of redoubling efforts to improve the safety of their plants and reduce the risk of another TMI, Duke Power and Virginia Power are taking on new challenges that will reduce safety margins and increase risk.

"While U.S. taxpayers will bear the brunt of this program, they won't even be informed of the total bill, because Duke Power is keeping the amount of its proposed subsidies confidential." said NCI Executive Director Tom Clements. "But it won't be a bargain. Since this consortium was the sole bidder for the contract, it no doubt extracted very favorable terms from DOE for its member companies at the expense of the taxpayer.

" Mr. Clements also expressed concern about the proliferation risks of the MOX program. "This contract will also send a signal to other nations, such as France and Japan, that the use of plutonium in commercial reactors is acceptable, which will encourage them to continue to reprocess their spent fuel and extract even more plutonium. This can only increase risks to international security, in spite of what DOE claims," Mr. Clements said.

"DOE should be concentrating on the other alternative it is pursuing for warhead plutonium disposition, which is cheaper, faster and safer — immobilization with already existing nuclear wastes for direct disposal," said Mr. Clements.

Additional information on DOE's plutonium disposition program can be found on NCI's World Wide Web site:

Tom Clements
Dr. Edwin Lyman, 202-822-8444

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