USA - Plutonium Investigation n°17-18

MOX - Recent Developments

   The two-track option confirmed, DOE moved forward, putting the emphasis on MOX. In June 1998, then Energy Secretary Frederico Peña announced that he had selected the SRS as the new site for a MOX fabrication plant, costing $500 million and offering around 500 new jobs. In December 1998 the new Energy Secretary Bill Richardson made known the choice of SRS as the planned location also of a plutonium Pit Disassembly and Conversion Plant (PDCP). The choice followed keen competition for the plant between SRS and the PANTEX facility located in Amarillo, Texas. The plant supposedly would create 400 permanent jobs after its completion in five to six years time.

   On 23 March 1999, DOE announced a $130 million contract for the first phase of MOX use in US commercial reactors. The contract followed an extended DOE consultation and review procedure that began in the spring of 1997 with the publication of the Procurement Acquisition Strategy to canvass MOX manufacturers and utilities interested in the MOX disposal option. DOE awarded the contract to an industry consortium composed of Duke Engineering & Services, Stone & Webster, and Cogema Inc., the US subsidiary of France's state-owned nuclear fuel company. Subcontractors for the team are Belgonucleaire, Framatome and Nuclear Fuel Services. Opponents point out that DOE made this contracting decision before it issued its Record of Decision in regard to its EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) on Surplus Plutonium Disposition.

   DOE also chose six reactors in the Carolinas and Virginia to burn MOX. The plants are: Catawba 1 and 2 (near York, South Carolina), owned by several municipal electric companies and Duke Power; McGuire 1 and 2 (near Huntersville, North Carolina), owned by Duke alone; and North Anna 1 and 2 (near Mineral, Virgina), owned by Virginia Power.

   Duke's view of the implications of getting into the MOX business is clear from a comment that its senior vice president Tuckerman made to The Tennessean newspaper in October 1998, "If MOX fuel is successful in the United States it could ultimately lead to full-scale reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel...".

   Commonwealth Edison had pulled out of a BNFL-led, competing consortium in September, 1998, following stakeholder objection to the company's prospective involvement in the MOX program. The BNFL consortium was composed of Bechtel, Babcock & Wilcox, and Westinghouse. The other consortium to submit a proposal to DOE by the September 1998 deadline was led by Siemens, and included Raytheon and Battelle. DOE refused this bid, because of perceived irregularities in the consortium's composition.

   The announcement of the MOX burn program followed release of a study in January 1999 by the Nuclear Control Institute, which concluded that a severe accident at a reactor using 100% MOX could result in twice as many cancer deaths as a similar accident at a uranium-fueled plant. For reactors fueled by one-third MOX cores as is envisaged for the start of the program, the calculation suggests a 37% increase in cancers. The increases would be due to the greater number of actinides in MOX fuel, including plutonium, americium and curium.

   Shortly after the contract announcement, DOE issued the Draft EIS for Savannah River Site's Spent Nuclear Fuel Management. It is a very important document on the future of reprocessing aimed at assisting the DOE, which owns SRS, to decide how to manage sixty-eight tonnes of irradiated fuel. Most of this material is already at SRS, and the remainder is scheduled to arrive there during the next thirty-five years. The two reprocessing plants at SRS, the F- and H-Canyons, are the last operational reprocessing plants in the country, since the plants at Hanford and Idaho have closed. (The Draft EIS is available on:

   In August 1999 DOE concluded a deal with Raytheon for a 2 1/2 -year, $40 million contract to design the plutonium Pit Disassembly and Conversion Plant (PDCP). A July 1998 DOE study estimated that the facility would cost about $920 million at SRS, compared to $980 million at Pantex. The 1999 Appropriation request for pit disassembly into unclassified forms was $155.4m, an increase of $72.3m over the 1998 figure. The PDCP would have a capacity of 3.5 tonnes of plutonium a year.

   The ARIES (Advanced Recovery & Integrated Extraction System) developed jointly by Los Alamos (LANL) and Lawrence Livermore labs will provide the technical base, according to DOE. ARIES uses hydrogen and / or oxygen to recover the plutonium from the pits. The pit falls apart in flakes, which are collected and transformed into plutonium oxide. A demonstration prototype pit disassembly plant, capable of processing up to 40 different types of pit, was started up at LANL in September 1998. LANL has been lobbying the Russians to use this technology. A key political figure in pressing for United States-Russia cooperation on plutonium management has been Senator Pete Domenici, a powerful Republican from New Mexico who chairs the Senate Special Task Force for Plutonium Disposition. The Record of Decision on surplus plutonium disposition was released 4 January 2000. The decision prepares the way for the immobilization of approximately 17 metric tonnes of plutonium and fabrication of up to 33 tonnes of MOX fuel. It makes official the plan by DOE to construct three plants at Savannah River, a plant to provide pit assembly and conversion, a plant to fabricate MOX fuel, and another to immobilize plutonium in ceramic pucks, which are themselves to be embedded in vitrified high-level waste. It also clears the way for the implementation of DOE's contract with the Duke, Cogema, Stone & Webster consortium, which could not take effect until the National Environmental Protection Act process was complete. The contract covers construction, operation, and even desactivation of the MOX plant and irradiation of the fabricated MOX in the chosen reactors.

   According to a review of the project EIS by the Nuclear Control Institute, the proposed MOX facility will be based on an existing MOX plant in France (the MELOX plant at Marcoule) but will be modified to meet US regulations. Under the proposed design, plutonium dioxide powder would be received from DOE's proposed Pit Disassembly and Conversion Plant and would be aqueously processed in acid (so-called "polished") to ensure that it meets the agreed-to fuel specification for MOX fuel. Following the "polishing" step, the plutonium in solution would then be converted back into plutonium dioxide. The plutonium dioxide would be mixed with uranium dioxide and formed into MOX fuel pellets.

   DOE will submit a budget to Congress for the MOX program in 2000 for the fiscal year 2001. If Congress budgets money for the estimated $1 billion project, construction will begin in 2001 with completion scheduled for 2004. The facility then would start extracting plutonium and producing MOX fuel in 2005.

   Immobilization plans are progressing more slowly. The Defense Waste Processing Facility (DWPF), the facility that is to vitrify the high-level waste into which the plutonium pucks will be placed has experienced technical difficulties, as a result of which DOE is only able to vitrify the sludge at the bottom of SRS's storage tanks. It cannot handle the liquid in the tanks. In January 1998, after an expenditure of $450 million, DOE shut down the In-Tank Precipitation Facility that processed the liquid, because of inflammable benzene buildup inside the facility's tanks. DOE has not yet developed a new process for solidifying the liquid, which consists of salt and some radioactive materials, primarily cesium-137.

   The proposed plutonium immobilization plant would cost from $478 million to $484 million to build and operate, and would employ about 250 people, according to DOE estimates. The facility was slated to receive $21million in fiscal year 2000, which began on 1 October 1999. But by the time President Clinton signed the budget into law, the funding had been removed to the dismay of many advocates of immobilization. DOE is now using the problems at DWPF as the reason for dragging its feet on the plutonium immobilization plant; but critics claim that DOE's actual reason is disinterest in the immobilization option for plutonium disposal. A preliminary report on DWPF by the National Research Council faults DOE for not finding means of repairing the In-Tank Precipitation Facility.

   No US plutonium will actually be fabricated into MOX or immobilized, until the United States and Russia have reached agreement on disposal and Russia is prepared to move ahead with its own disposition program. Russia and the United States came a step closer to each other on plutonium issues in February 2000 with an agreement on a joint research and aid package from the United States. As part of this agreement, Russia reportedly agreed to stop reprocessing the irradiated fuel from its civilian reactors. (See "Questions over US-Russian Plutonium Deal")

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