seeks MOX test site in Belgium
GreenvilleOnline.com, July 26, 2002
By Tim Smith, staff writer
Original address: http://www.greenvilleonline.com/news/2002/07/26/2002072626265.htm
COLUMBIA The United States is asking the Belgium government
to approve using facilities there to produce the first test batches
of MOX, the nuclear fuel officials plan to manufacture at the Savannah
River Site in six years, a member of the Belgium parliament told The
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Energy confirmed that the
government was discussing use of overseas facilities with European officials
but declined to provide details.
Producing the test mixed oxide fuel will be the next major milestone
for the $4 billion project, which is designed to convert 34 metric tons
of surplus American military plutonium to fuel for commercial nuclear
Asking European facilities to produce the test MOX carries risks, environmentalists
and officials of nonproliferation groups say, not only because using
nuclear bomb material at such plants could stir political protests but
also because it could mean shipping U.S. military plutonium overseas.
Eloi Glorieux, a member of the Flemish government in Belgium's parliament,
said the government there would likely decide by the end of August whether
to approve the U.S. request to use a MOX production facility near Dessel
to make the first test batches of MOX.
He said while the issue has not stirred public debate, it is being
argued by officials of the government, with conservatives in favor of
the proposal and many Social Democrats and so-called "Greens,"
the environmentalists, opposed.
"Right now, it's absolutely open," he said. "It will
depend on how the game is played. It will be the one who gives in first.
It's not an economic issue. It's not really a social or an employment
issue. It's an ethical question, so to say."
European facilities have manufactured MOX for years for commercial
nuclear reactors, though not using weapons-grade plutonium.
European MOX is made essentially by recycling spent nuclear fuel. The
test fuel, called lead test assemblies, will be used at one of Duke
Energy's two Charlotte-area nuclear power plants, Catawba in South Carolina,
or McGuire in North Carolina.
Lisa Cutler, a spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration,
which is overseeing the project, said no decisions have yet been made
about how the test fuel will be created.
"One option that we're looking at is early fabrication of a small
number of lead assemblies in Europe," she said. "We're meeting
with government officials in Europe to determine what would be necessary
to pursue this option."
She declined to elaborate on the talks or name the nations involved.
In addition to the facility at Dessel, owned by Belgonucleaire, Glorieux
said the U.S. also is considering facilities in France.
One MOX facility in France is owned by Cogema, one of the partners
in the consortium that has signed a contract to build the MOX plant
Asked why officials were considering Europe, Cutler replied, "We're
looking at a number of different options and they all have different
advantages and disadvantages. We're looking for the best place to do
Tom Clements, an official with Greenpeace International who met recently
with Belgium officials about the issue, said the U.S. Department of
Energy prefers the European option because it would allow the fuel to
be tested much more quickly than if they waited until after the SRS
facilities were operating, now scheduled for 2008.
"I think they want a quick resolution to stay on their timeline,"
he said. "But there's no rush. The U.S. government must provide
honest answers about the costs and risks of a MOX program and not be
a party to anti-democratic, secret decision making in a foreign country."
Glorieux, who is opposed to use of the facilities for the U.S. MOX,
said he knows Belgium resistance to the U.S. proposal will not stop
production of the test fuel.
"If Belgium doesn't do it, France will," he said. "And
if Belgium and France won't do it, then the United States has enough
experience and technology that it will only take one or two more years
for them to make their own MOX facilities. But I think it is a very
bad message to give to the world, that the use of MOX is a good thing.There
are alternatives which are less environmentally damaging and less dangerous."
He said the Belgium government decided three years ago to eventually
end its production and use of MOX and it would therefore not make sense
to aid another nation's efforts to begin making such fuel.
Cutler said the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is working
on the purification of weapons-grade plutonium to be used for the test
She said however it's done, the creation of test fuel is critical for
the MOX program to succeed.
"We need to know how the material is going to perform in the reactor,"
she said. "And we need to perform tests so that the facility that
is going to be built is done to the right specifications."
Rose Cummings, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy, said officials hope the
test fuel will come to Duke sometime in 2004 in the form of four assemblies,
each of which carries about 204 fuel rods. Each fuel assembly is about
12 feet long, 1 foot wide and weighs about 1,500 pounds, she said.
The four test assemblies will be part of 193 assemblies that power
the reactor, she said. Duke plans to run the test fuel for at least
two fuel cycles of about 18 months each, during which, she said, Duke,
DOE and officials with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will examine
the fuel's performance and safety.
Before Duke can load the test fuel, it must apply to the NRC. Environmental
groups have raised safety questions about the fuel, charging that an
accident involving MOX will cause many more injuries than an accident
with typical nuclear reactor fuel, which is made of uranium.
Glorieux said the decision by Belgium would likely be made by the government's
council of ministers and its prime minister, though it will be debated
in the Parliament.
"It's not a public issue," he said from his Brussels office.
"If you ask people in the street about it, nobody will know about
it or care. But it's a very important issue for me."
Staff writer Tim Smith covers state government. He can be reached