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Citizen Action in Japan Prevented Larger Plutonium Disaster at Fukushima Reactor 3
Plans to use MOX in U.S. reactors in doubt after fuel flaws
WASHINGTON - March 31 - A concerted Japanese citizen action that delayed the loading of mixed plutonium-uranium fuel – known as MOX – into the core of the Unit 3 reactor at Fukushima and prevented the use of MOX at several other reactors, likely prevented a far worse outcome than is currently occurring at the troubled reactor today.
Japanese citizen groups successfully resisted the use of MOX fuel at Fukushima-Daiichi for a decade. MOX fuel was not loaded into the reactor until August 21, 2010 and the reactor began operation on September 18, 2010. Consequently, all the MOX fuel remains in the core and none of it had yet been transferred to the unprotected fuel pool.
Last August, Beyond Nuclear’s radioactive waste watchdog, Kevin Kamps, was invited by Green Action Japan and their local Fukushima anti-nuclear environmental allies to travel to Fukushima specifically to speak about the risks of storing MOX high-level radioactive waste in storage pools.
“If the citizen groups had not been successful, there would have been a 33% load of MOX at Fukushima Daiichi 3 instead of the current 5% and there would have been MOX in the spent fuel pool,” said Kamps. “The activists have saved countless lives by preventing what might have been a worse disaster than is already taking place.”
Plutonium is harmful when inhaled and is deadly in the environment for 240,000 years. Unit 3 was to have begun using MOX in 2000. Thirty two MOX fuel assemblies, fabricated at Belgonucleaire, were already on site when opposition was mounted. Plutonium has been found in the soil around the Fukushima accident site and is thought to be from Unit 3. However, plutonium is produced by all reactors during the fission process.
Japanese opposition to MOX also prevented the plutonium fuel being loaded into reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa and Fukushima Daini. All would have had MOX fuel in the spent fuel pools today had not this plan been blocked.
Plans for the use of MOX fuel in the U.S. experienced a setback in May 2008 when a testing program of MOX lead test assemblies in Duke Energy’s Catawba reactor had to be aborted due to dangerous conditions. The fuel assemblies, produced by the French state-owned company AREVA, grew abnormally long in the testing reactor – the Catawba plant in South Carolina. This excessive growth is a safety hazard because it can deform and damage the MOX fuel. In November 2009, Duke quietly allowed its contract with the Department of Energy to use MOX in its reactors to lapse, effectively withdrawing from the program.
No U.S. reactors are adapted to use MOX fuel which creates hotter waste and causes faster degradation of reactor components. As in Japan, U.S. activists have run a Nix-MOX campaign for several decades. However, construction of an expensive MOX fuel fabrication plant at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina continues. The plant would convert 34 metric tons of surplus weapons plutonium into fuel for use in commercial reactors.