July 2002

U.S. 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

[Posted 31/07/2002]

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 Greenville News.

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 reactors.

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 at SRS.

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 it."

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 fuel.

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 at 803-256-7367.

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