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Spending reduction bill would halt funding for MOX project

Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012 10:39 AM
Last updated Friday, Feb. 10, 2012 1:15 AM
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Legislation to cut $100 billion from a “bloated” U.S. nuclear weapons budget over the next decade includes a provision to halt further funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s $4.8 billion mixed oxide fuel plant under construction at Savannah River Site.

The Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures (SANE) Act of 2012, introduced Wednesday by U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and about 30 co-sponsors, also would cut the current nuclear submarine fleet, reduce the nation’s ICBM missile inventory, delay construction of new nuclear-capable bombers and end current nuclear strike bomber missions.

Among nuclear weapons related construction projects that would be halted is the MOX facility, scheduled to open in 2016.

The plant’s mission is to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium — or the equivalent needed for about 17,000 warheads — by blending small amounts of the material with uranium to make nuclear fuel suitable for commercial power reactors.

Markey’s bill stipulates that “none of the funds authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available for fiscal year 2013 or any fiscal year thereafter for the Department of Defense or the Department of Energy may be obligated or expended for the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility project.”

Critics of the MOX project acknowledge the bill has little chance of approval, but believe it could have positive impacts on future decisions.

“It might be hard for the bill to pass but part of the aim is to create dialogue about wasteful nuclear-related spending,” said Tom Clements, nonproliferation policy director for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability. “And I think that will definitely happen.”

The MOX plant, in its sixth year of construction, employs about 2,200 workers and is 60 percent complete.

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SCEagle Eye
959
Points
SCEagle Eye 02/09/12 - 10:57 am
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Even if the MOX plant

Even if the MOX plant overcomes the current license challenge and is technically able to operate, the required testing of weapons-grade MOX in the Browns Ferry boiling water reactor could take 10 years (with testing time, examination and licensing considered). Weapons-grade MOX has NEVER even been tested, much less used, in a BWR. This means that the MOX plant couldn't go into full-scale production until 2028, just a few years before the Browns Ferry Fukushima-design reactors start closing at the end of their 60-year licenses. As there is no way to avoid an NRC-required test of weapons-grade MOX in a BWR - test data on use of reactor-grade MOX in Europe can't be the basis for US MOX licensing - how does DOE explain this huge problem with the MOX plant operational schedule? Anyone care to take on this question, which DOE and AREVA are avoiding like the plague?

Little Lamb
49247
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Little Lamb 02/09/12 - 11:41 am
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Let me explain. Eagle Eye

Let me explain. Eagle Eye posted:

As there is no way to avoid an NRC-required test of weapons-grade MOX in a BWR - test data on use of reactor-grade MOX in Europe can't be the basis for US MOX licensing - how does DOE explain this huge problem with the MOX plant operational schedule?

Newspaper reporters make a distinction between "weapons-grade" plutonium and "reactor-grade" plutonium. But when plutonium is blended and fabricated into reactor fuel, the neutrons do not care where the plutonium came from. A plutonium atom is a plutonium atom no matter what the pedigree. Each atom of a particular isotope behaves the same.

So a test made on a particular mix of uranium/plutonium coming from a standard reprocessing plant of commercial fuel would be valid on that same mix of uranium/plutonium where the plutonium came from a warhead.

Just remember this factoid:

The neutrons don't care.

SCEagle Eye
959
Points
SCEagle Eye 02/09/12 - 02:37 pm
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Little Lamb - Thanks for your

Little Lamb - Thanks for your response. But, are you implying: 1) that the US NRC doesn't need its own validation for fuel performance in a US reactor and will base licensing on data and analysis from a foreign regulatory system? and/or 2) that Energy Northwest, which has a GE Mark II reactor (Columbia Generating Station) which may yet be on the MOX-use list, is incorrect in its assertion that a 3-cycle irradiation test (6 years) of MOX "lead use assemblies" will be needed to license WG MOX in a US BWR?

Little Lamb
49247
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Little Lamb 02/09/12 - 02:42 pm
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The NRC has pretty much carte

The NRC has pretty much carte blanche to require whatever it wants regarding licensing something. There is very little statutory oversight. And thank goodness for that. Would you want Nancy Pelosi deciding nuclear physics questions?

SCEagle Eye
959
Points
SCEagle Eye 02/09/12 - 04:39 pm
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Concerning SRS, seems like

Concerning SRS, seems like Lindsey Graham is the one who calls the shots, which is bad news for the nation's remaining fiscal conservatives (if there are any!). LL - Concerning reactor grade and weapons grade plutonium, are you suggesting that even though the isotopics are quite different that they perform the same as MOX fuel in a reactor? Are you saying that thermal conductivity, reactivity, and criticality aspects are the same with reactor-grade and weapons-grade MOX?

Little Lamb
49247
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Little Lamb 02/09/12 - 04:47 pm
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First, let me say that I do

First, let me say that I do not have top security clearance, so I have never designed a plutonium bomb. But I am pretty sure that a plutonium bomb does not use MOX. MOX is a term for nuclear reactor fuel fabricated from a mixture of uranium and plutonium in oxide form. So, given that, the answer is that the thermal conductivity, reactivity and criticality aspects are the same regardless of the source of the plutonium.

SCEagle Eye
959
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SCEagle Eye 02/09/12 - 06:33 pm
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There’s a lot on this that’s

There’s a lot on this that’s public, but let’s take these figures as “typical isotopic composition of plutonium” -- from NUCLEAR ENGINEERING AND TECHNOLOGY, VOL.40 NO.1, FEBRUARY 2008:

Weapons -grade plutonium: 94% Pu-239, 5.5% Pu-240, 0.5% Pu-211 + americium, 0.02% Pu-242

Reactor-grade plutonium from spent PWR fuel (55 GWd/tU): 3.3% Pu-238, 50% Pu-239, 27% Pu-240, 10% Pu-241 +americium, 9% Pu-242

Little Lamb - Are you saying that plutonium fuel (MOX) made from plutonium of these different isotopic mixtures performs the same in a reactor and that the NRC agrees with that?

UNION IW2
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UNION IW2 02/10/12 - 05:45 pm
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I am proud we have the MOX

I am proud we have the MOX facility for jobs in this area. It also employees many visitors from other states that havent had work in a few years due to the economy.It has been a proven technology overseas and sadly, the ones they have on site arent doing their jobs with the leadership of the project. Unless they get their act together, you won't have to worry about MOX. Right now, they are facing major challenges with getting their act together. They have many management/engineering challenges to overcome and don't wish to pay to keep QUALIFIED Craftsmen on the job. Between the poor working conditions and pay, DOE has had their hands full. Hopefully, we will be able to get enough QUALIFIED people in craft, engineering and Management (which is sorely lacking at the moment) to keep this project running and get it back to a reasonable schedule and budget.

robaroo
884
Points
robaroo 02/11/12 - 09:50 am
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SC Eagle Eye - Thank you for

SC Eagle Eye - Thank you for taking the time to look at technical references. Unfortunately, you missed a key concept. The terms weapons-grade and reactor-grade refer to concentrations.

MOX will take concentrated plutonium-239 and blend it with uranium 235 and uranium 238. The resulting fuel rod will have much lower concentrations of Pu-239. In other words, it is very far from weapons-grade. There is no "weapons grade MOX".

To make a weapon out of Pu, an adversary would need to steal a lot of fuel rods, then build their own separations facility to concentrate the Pu-239 to weapons grade again. I can't imagine a scenario where that would go undetected.

Spent fuel is fuel that has already been used to the point it is no longer useful in a reactor. Again, an adversary would need to build a separations facility to get something useful out of it.

SCEagle Eye
959
Points
SCEagle Eye 02/11/12 - 03:21 pm
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Agreed that MOX made from

Agreed that MOX made from reactor-grade plutonium and MOX made from weapons-grade plutonium, let's say around 5% concentration in a fuel pellet, have different isotopic mixture of plutonium. As MOX fuel made from weapons-grade plutonium has never been tested or used in a boiling water reactor (BWR), NRC-licensed tests are unavoidable as the licensing for BWR use can't be based on the different isotopic mix of MOX made from reactor-grade plutonium. A license amendment for testing in a reactor is necessary for new types of fuel, which is exactly what MOX made from weapons-grade plutonium would be. Anyway, that's my take on the NRC licensing process and it's the process Duke went through to test WG MOX in the Catawba reactor (aborted after two cycles and Duke subsequently withdrew from the MOX program).

SCEagle Eye
959
Points
SCEagle Eye 02/16/12 - 05:47 am
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Sounds like DOE has

Sounds like DOE has backtracked about the need to conduct a lengthy MOX test and admits it may be required by the NRC. It fact testing of weapons-grade MOX will be required by the NRC. We're talking 10 years of testing and review, which causes some in DOE headahes but contractors love it as the schedule and spending will be shifted at least a decade. Ya gotta love these big-government high-cost projects with little oversight.

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