Duke Energy Abandons Plutonium Fuel (MOX) Testing Program in South Carolina Reactor

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Tom Clements, 803-834-3084
Nick Berning, 202-222-0748

Duke Energy Abandons Plutonium Fuel (MOX) Testing Program in South Carolina Reactor

Utility’s decision to abort test during reactor outage is a huge setback for federal Department of Energy

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Friends of the Earth has learned that Duke Energy has taken a
decisive step which signals its complete withdrawal from the Department
of Energy's controversial program to test the potential use of surplus
military plutonium as fuel for commercial nuclear reactors.
 

In a stunning and silent move, Duke Energy has decided not to
reload experimental plutonium fuel (mixed oxide fuel, MOX) test
assemblies into its Catawba Unit 1 reactor during the current fuel
outage which began on November 6. This move is a major setback to the
Department of Energy's goal of using MOX fuel in commercial reactors.
Such an outage is a normal procedure, as the radioactive uranium fuel
must be withdrawn from the reactor core every 18 months.
 

This refueling outage began two weeks early due to a reactor
cooling pump leak which had to be repaired and which, according to the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was not a reportable event because the
radioactive water leakage was within technical specifications.  

 
"Duke's total abandonment of the plutonium fuel program should be
a wake-up call to the Energy Department. Plans to force the use of this
costly and dangerous fuel in U.S. reactors must be immediately halted,"
said Tom Clements, Southeastern Nuclear Campaign Coordinator for
Friends of the Earth. "That it took Duke a full ten years to pull out
of the MOX program is a good indicator of more trouble ahead with
respect to costs, schedule and safety. It's not too late to pull the
plug on the entire misguided program, halt construction of an expensive
MOX plant under construction at the Savannah River Site and pursue a
cheaper, safer and faster alternative: management of plutonium as
nuclear waste."

 
Duke's decision to abandon the first-ever testing of MOX fuel made
from surplus weapons plutonium is a huge setback to the Department of
Energy, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will now not be able to
license full-scale MOX use. In order to be used with uranium fuel in a
nuclear reactor, the MOX fuel must perform acceptably during three
18-month test irradiation cycles. But the four MOX "lead test
assemblies" being tested at the Catawba reactor were withdrawn from the
reactor in May 2008 after only two cycles due to poor performance and
placed in the plant's spent fuel storage pool. Five rods were withdrawn
from one fuel assembly and shipped to Oak Ridge National Lab for
examination, but no test results have been made public.
 

Duke Energy, under contract with Shaw Areva MOX Services to
conduct the MOX test, has apparently now scrapped not only the MOX
reload but also halted reconsideration of any long-term MOX use in its
Catawba and McGuire reactors. Duke had signed a contract in 1999 "to
purchase mixed-oxide fuel for use in the McGuire and Catawba nuclear
reactors" and to conduct a test with the experimental fuel.
 
Use of MOX fuel has long drawn criticism from non-proliferation
and environmental groups due to the costs, safety concerns and
proliferation risks involved in processing, transporting and using such
fuel. In letters sent on November 10, 2009, Friends of the Earth
demanded assurances from the NRC that the aborted partial MOX test will
not be used as a justification for licensing MOX use and called on the
Department of Energy to halt construction of the $5 billion MOX factory
now underway at its Savannah River Site in South Carolina until such
time as full MOX use in nuclear reactors is licensed and MOX reactors
are contracted. 
 

The test assemblies were manufactured in France in a now-closed
facility at Cadarache, leaving the Department of Energy with no
fabrication option for new tests of the experimental fuel. A repeat of
the MOX test would take approximately seven years, including NRC
licensing procedures, fuel fabrication, irradiation (three 18-month
cycles, taking a total of 54 months), and post-irradiation examination.
 

Now, with the loss of Duke, the Department of Energy has no
reactors lined up to use the MOX product from the MOX factory under
construction at its Savannah River Site. DOE claims that it is talking
to various nuclear utilities about MOX use, including the Tennessee
Valley Authority, but it is unknown if those utilities are aware that
they would have to conduct a lengthy test no matter the reactor type
they might propose for the program. Additionally, MOX alters reactor
performance and would result in more release of radiation in a severe
accident.
 

Acting in the public interest, Friends of the Earth and the Union
of Concerned Scientists revealed on August 4, 2008 that the MOX test
fuel had been prematurely withdrawn from the Catawba reactor. The
Department of Energy never issued a statement about that test failure
and Friends of the Earth now calls on the Department to issue a full
explanation of the failed test and Duke's abandonment of the program.

 
Resources:
 

November 10 letter to the Department of Energy:
http://www.foe.org/sites/default/files/Letter_Chu_on_MOX_test.pdf

 
November 10 letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission:
http://www.foe.org/sites/default/files/Letter_NRC_on_MOX_test.pdf
 

Notes:

1.  Pertinent FOE news releases on MOX:
 

March 13, 2009: "DOE's Plans to Use Plutonium Fuel (MOX) Jolted by Duke Energy's Withdrawal," http://www.foe.org/plutonium-fuel-plan-hits-roadblock
 

August 8, 2009 "Nuclear Fuel Test Failure should Trigger Suspension of Weapons-Grade Plutonium Fuel Use," http://www.foe.org/nuclear-fuel-test-failure-raises-concerns

 
September 3, 2009: Energy Department Forced to Release Photos of MOX Transport Trucks, http://www.foe.org/photos-nuke-transport-trucks-released
 

2. Friends of the Earth has filed Freedom of Information Act
requests concerning examination of the MOX test rods at Oak Ridge
National Lab and also about the interest of the Tennessee Valley
Authority in MOX use. However, DOE has staunchly refused to respond to
the requests, contrary to openness directives by DOE Secretary Chu and
Attorney General Holder.

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Friends of the Earth is the U.S. voice of the world's largest grassroots environmental network, with member groups in 77 countries. Since 1969, Friends of the Earth has fought to create a more healthy, just world.

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