February 2003

U.S. runs into MOX snags in France, Belgium

GreenvilleOnline.com, February 24, 2003

Original address: http://greenvilleonline.com/news/2003/02/24/200302241876.htm

[Posted 26/02/2003]

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 embassy.

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 process.

"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 States.

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 to Greenpeace.

"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.

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