runs into MOX snags in France, Belgium
GreenvilleOnline.com, February 24, 2003
By Tim Smith, CAPITAL BUREAU
Original address: http://greenvilleonline.com/news/2003/02/24/200302241876.htm
The French won't let differences over a possible
war with Iraq keep the United States from using a French facility to
make the first U.S. batches of nuclear fuel from military plutonium,
according to the French Embassy.
However, the French government has not decided whether it will allow
the plant to be used to make mixed-oxide fuel, or MOX, according to
The test batches are a key step in the $4 billion
program to manufacture MOX at the Savannah River Site. The program,
part of an American-Russian weapons agreement, would convert 34 metric
tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel
to be used at two Charlotte-area nuclear plants.
The U.S. Department of Energy is considering French
and Belgium facilities because they already make MOX. And making the
first batches in Europe would allow the testing and safety review of
the fuel to take place before the SRS facilities are completed, saving
years in the process.
But government and nonproliferation group officials
say significant hurdles have surfaced in Europe in the last year, and
opposition to the U.S. stance on Iraq from Belgium and France has not
helped the situation.
"Some politicians could certainly use the disagreements
over Iraq to point out the U.S. is trying to bulldoze this whole plutonium
program through without international support," said Tom Clements,
an official with Greenpeace International.
Ed Lyman, president of the Nuclear Control Institute,
a Washington-based nonproliferation group, said the French would not
necessarily be swayed in their nuclear decisions by their differences
with the United States over Iraq.
"However, if they didn't want to do it, it
certainly wouldn't help the U.S. press its case," he said.
According to the French Embassy in Washington, making
MOX at the French facility of Cadarache is still a possibility and will
not be affected by French opposition to war in Iraq.
Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the National Nuclear
Security Administration, a division of DOE supervising the MOX project,
said the government is continuing to examine the European option. He
said the consortium, which will build and run the MOX plant at SRS,
is getting cost and schedule information from Belgian and French companies
but wouldn't release further details.
Last summer, a member of the Belgium parliament
told The Greenville News the U.S. government had asked Belgium to allow
the first batches of MOX, called lead test assemblies, to be made there.
Environmentalists in the government, called Greens, opposed the MOX
plans, and a decision has been postponed.
Eloi Glorieux, a member of the Flemish government
in the Belgium parliament, told The News the issue remains controversial
and he does not believe it will be approved, though the nation's prime
minister recently visited Washington.
"I think the issue is closed," he said.
That would leave France. Cogema, one of the companies
involved in the consortium to make MOX at SRS, is a French firm.
But the MOX plant mentioned as a possible manufacturing
site, Cadarache, is scheduled to be closed. Officials have cited safety
concerns with the plant's ability to withstand earthquake damage. And
the facility, like all other European MOX plants, has never made the
fuel using military plutonium.
"I think it would be imprudent for the Americans
to insist on making MOX in a plant that has been declared unsafe seismically
by the French," said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute
for Energy and Environmental Research, an American scientific group
that studies MOX issues. "If there is a problem, it would be seen
as the Americans muscling the French on one more issue. And the French
don't seem to be in the mood to be muscled anyway."
Makhijani said many of the problems the United States
has encountered in gaining European cooperation stem from the fact that
none of the plants are licensed to handle weapons-grade plutonium, which
makes up the core of nuclear bombs. European MOX plants use spent commercial
nuclear fuel rods.
"There are just an immense number of fine-print
issues, which have simply been brushed under the carpet," Makhijani
said. "I really think this is one of those sad cases where the
goals of the program were good for plutonium disposition, but it's gotten
mired down because of poor program design and fairly incoherent implementation."
Lyman said however the government decides to make
its first batches of MOX, the European problems have added time to the
"That may mean there will be more pressure
on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission not to look too hard or make too
many demands for licensing this fuel," he said, "and I think
that would be a mistake. There are a whole lot of issues about the performance
of this fuel and its safety, which need to be resolved."
Officials plan to produce the first MOX at SRS by
2009. The government can be forced to pay financial penalties to South
Carolina of up to $100 million a year if the site does not produce a
ton of MOX by 2011.
MOX critics have charged that using European nations
to produce the first batches of mixed-oxide fuel involves unnecessary
risk because the plutonium would have to travel so far from the United
Recently, a group of Greenpeace demonstrators chained
themselves to a truck carrying plutonium in France to show how routinely
that nation transports the dangerous material. Every week trucks carrying
the equivalent of 20 atom bombs leave the La Hague plant in France headed
for the Marcoule or Cadarache MOX plants in the Rhone valley, according
"The thought of highly visible sea and land
shipments of U.S. weapons plutonium at this time likely gives chills
to both the security and PR people in the French and Belgian governments,"
Greenpeace's Clements said.