MOX - Recent Developments
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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: http://tis.eh.doe.gov/nepa/docs/docs.htm)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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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