Hearing begins on Duke Energy's plans to test MOX fuel

newsobserver.com, Charlotte, N.C. (AP), December 3, 2003
By Paul Nowell, AP Business Writer

Original address: http://newsobserver.com/nc24hour/ncbusiness/story/3100424p-2812350c.html

[Posted 11/12/2003]

Enviromentalists officially began presenting their case Wednesday against Duke Energy Corp.'s plans to test a blended plutonium fuel in one of its nuclear plants by 2005.

Duke Power Co., the electric utility subsidiary of Duke Energy, eventually wants to use mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel at its McGuire Nuclear Power Station near Huntersville, N.C., and the Catawba Nuclear Power Station near York, S.C.
At a hearing in Charlotte's federal courthouse, attorney Diane Curran argued in front of a three-judge panel of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board against the testing for her client, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.

"What Duke is trying to do here is find some justification for this new experimental fuel program on its existing reactors," BREDL's Louis Zeller said during a morning break of the highly technical testimony by attorneys for the environmental group and Duke Energy.

"For years, Duke says this program has been successful in France," he said. "We are getting information from French scientists who say they have found problems in the fuel rods."

Duke Energy spokeswoman Rose Cummings said the purpose of the hearing was for the panel to determine if any of the claims warranted further investigation by the NRC.

The panel was chaired by Atomic Safety and Licensing Board administrative judge Ann Marshall Young, who was joined by fellow judges Anthony Baratta and Thomas Elleman. The panel was not expected to make a ruling until next month, Cummings said.

"We recognize this is part of the process," Cummings said. "We disagree with the contentions being raised and feel most of their arguments are against the process itself.

"The bottom line is we believe we can do this safely," she said.

The Catawba and McGuire plants would be the first in the United States to burn MOX fuel, which would contain a small percentage of weapons-grade plutonium. MOX made from plutonium is now used in 35 European reactors, Duke Energy said.

Duke Energy said the MOX fuel would be introduced in small quantities.

The company plans to use four MOX fuel assemblies out of 193 total fuel assemblies in one of the McGuire or Catawba nuclear reactors beginning in 2005, Duke has said. The program will allow Duke Energy to request regulatory approval for larger-scale use of MOX fuel beginning around 2008.

Using MOX fuel to generate electricity is a practical way to consume surplus plutonium from nuclear weapons and reduce the risk of terrorist groups or rogue nations obtaining the material, Duke Energy has said.

Sherry Lorenz, a resident of Tega Cay, S.C., which is located near Duke's Catawba nuclear plant, said she supported the efforts to stop the MOX program because she was concerned about possible health risks.

"It's all about money," she said. "Duke will get the MOX fuel almost for nothing, courtesy of taxpayers. They are not worried about what's down the road."