Secret Plan Exposed to Use Surplus Weapons Plutonium in Washington State Nuclear Reactor

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Tom Clements, tomclements329@cs.com, 803-834-3084
Nick Berning, nberning@foe.org, 202-222-0748

Secret Plan Exposed to Use Surplus Weapons Plutonium in Washington State Nuclear Reactor

FOIA Documents Reveal Energy Northwest Plans Plutonium Fuel (MOX) Experiments While Seeking to Control Information Leaks to the Media

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Department
of Energy (DOE) documents released to Friends of the Earth reveal that
the public utility Energy Northwest hopes to bring experimental
radioactive plutonium fuel into Washington State for use in risky tests
in a nuclear reactor not originally designed for that purpose.  The
documents also reveal that the utility has sought to keep information
secret the about the controversial and risky pursuit of use of surplus
weapons plutonium as nuclear reactor fuel.

The environmental watchdog group Friends of the Earth believes that
the plutonium mixed oxide fuel (MOX) should be kept out of the state and
that such tests would pose unacceptable safety risks and lead to
unacceptable costs.

According to a DOE document dated January 6, 2011, and confirmed by
documents obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act, Energy
Northwest is "formally evaluating the potential use of MOX fuel" in the
company's single nuclear reactor - the Columbia Generating Station
reactor - located at the Department of Energy's Hanford site near
Richland, Washington. The reactor is a GE boiling water reactor (BWR)
and was licensed in 1984. The Hanford site, where it is located, has
produced about 65 metric tons of weapons plutonium in now-closed
reactors dedicated to military use.

"It is foolish for Energy Northwest to continue down this costly and
risky path and we urge the utility to drop the controversial MOX
plans," said Tom Clements, Southeastern Nuclear Campaign Coordinator
with friends of the Earth in Columbia, South Carolina. "Due to
non-proliferation and safety concerns, weapons plutonium should not be
used as fuel in the Columbia Generating Station or any other nuclear
power reactor."

"It's no surprise that the utility tried to keep its controversial
plans to use reactor fuel containing weapons-quality plutonium secret. 
Myriad technical and public relations problems are posed by the
potential use of a fuel that has never before been tested in a boiling
water reactor.  Bringing plutonium back to Hanford to be used as fuel
and stored as waste will set back cleanup efforts at the site. It's hard
to see how the public could accept bringing plutonium back to Hanford
after most of it has been shipped off the site," Clements said.

MOX fuel made from surplus weapons-grade plutonium has never before
been used in any country on a commercial scale and presents a host of
political and licensing problems for Energy Northwest.  MOX containing
approximately five to seven percent weapons-grade plutonium presents
technical challenges to reactor operation and fuel management and
storage, poses security risks in transport and handling, and presents
the threat of larger radiation release in an accident.  One of the
undated FOIA documents from Energy Northwest states, "It does not make
sense from either an economic perspective or risk perspective for Energy
Northwest to pursue the use of MOX fuel."  But nuclear officials have
pushed ahead in spite of those concerns.

Over 200 pages of FOIA documents reveal that officials at Energy
Northwest have been developing plans with the Pacific Northwest National
Laboratory and the Department of Energy to begin a "three-¬phased
approach to integrating MOX fuel" into the reactor. According to the
documents, testing would begin with irradiation of 10 to 20 fuel pins
fabricated by the laboratory in 2013 or 2105, followed by the use of up
to eight "lead use assemblies" (LUAs) around 2019 for three or more
two-year irradiation cycles (a total of six or more years), with loading
of up to 30 percent of the reactor's core with MOX fuel beginning
around 2025.  Each step would require license amendments from the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Department of Energy is currently constructing a $5-billion
facility to make MOX fuel at its Savannah River Site in South Carolina
and construction continues even though no nuclear reactor has been
identified that will use the MOX fuel.  Duke Energy began testing of
experimental MOX fuel in 2005 but dropped out of the program after a
test in its Catawba reactor in South Carolina failed after two rather
than the necessary three 18-month irradiation cycles (the three cycles
would have lasted a total of 54 months).  Now, the Energy Department,
via the contractor Shaw AREVA MOX Services, is focused on discussions
for MOX use with the Tennessee Valley Authority and Energy Northwest as
wider interest in the problematic fuel is lacking.  

A March 2009 Memorandum of Understanding between the Tennessee
Valley Authority and Energy Northwest regarding the exploration of
whether MOX could be used in boiling water reactors is among the FOIA
documents obtained by Friends of the Earth.  Fuel fabricator GE-Hiatchi
has also been involved in the MOX-use discussions and participated in a
secret meeting with Energy Northwest, the Pacific Northwest National
Laboratory, Shaw AREVA MOX Services, and DOE at the Savannah River Site
in September 2009.

The MOX program laid out in the documents is speculative as it would
have to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and would be
dependent on capacity to fabricate MOX test assemblies made from weapons
plutonium. No such production capacity currently exists, so the MOX
plant at the Savannah River site, scheduled to undergo startup testing
in 2016 or later (if construction finishes and if it can overcome an
operating license challenge by public interest groups), would have to be
used to fabricate  "lead use assemblies." This means that the MOX plant
at the Savannah River Site is at risk of sitting idle for years as no
MOX fuel beyond that used in testing could be produced during the test
phase as NRC approval for the fuel's quality and performance would be
lacking.

Energy Northwest presentations obtained via the Freedom of
information Act point out potential problems with MOX use, saying that
there must be "no negative impact on reactor operation" and that MOX use
must be "cost neutral" for Energy Northwest.  An Energy Northwest
senior engineer in charge of fuel management wrote in a December 2009
email that those at Energy Northwest and the Pacific Northwest National
Laboratory pursuing MOX use "don't want any unexpected press releases
about burning MOX fuel in [the Columbia Generating Station reactor]." 
That same official commented that the DOE's lack of utilities interested
in using the MOX fuel "doesn't look good politically."   

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Notes:

1.    FOIA documents from Energy Northwest (partial, final)
2.    DOE Presentation on Status of MOX Plant, January 6, 2011
3.    Friends of the Earth letter to NRC, Jan. 29, 2011, on plans by
Energy Northwest to use MOX, for Columbia Generating Station license
renewal application
4.    Friends of the Earth letter to Energy Northwest CEO Mark Reddemann, Jan. 31, 2011, urging the end of MOX use.
5.    Friends of the Earth news release "Duke Energy Abandons Plutonium Fuel (MOX) Testing Program in South Carolina Reactor," November 12, 2009
6.   Alliance for Nuclear Accountability (ANA) MOX fact sheet - "Plutonium Disposition Remains In Disarray"
7.   Information on NRC website about Columbia Generating Station:
8.   Energy Northwest overview

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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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