The U.S. Energy Department is exploring new strategies in its stalled effort to find clients willing to use mixed oxide reactor fuel to be produced at Savannah River Site.
The $4.86 billion MOX plant is designed to transform 34 metric tons of plutonium from dismantled bombs into commercial fuel suitable for nuclear power plants.
Although the plant has been under construction three years, with projected completion in 2016, commercial utilities have shown little interest in using the fuel.
Ken Bromberg, the National Nuclear Security Administration's assistant deputy administrator for fissile material disposition, said efforts to market MOX are being expanded to include talks with major fuel manufacturers and suppliers.
"We're working with AREVA, West-inghouse and Global Nuclear Fuel -- the main fabricators who supply fuel to utilities -- and we are working with each of them to see if we can supply MOX to them and they would market the fuels to their customers," he told The Augusta Chronicle .
Having the fuel available through traditional vendors, he said, could help make its use more attractive to commercial reactor operators.
"We are doing studies of what it would take to produce MOX using their designs," he said. "The purpose is to get to a point where utilities could choose to use our MOX and not be constrained to buy from one particular supplier."
The MOX technology is part of the National Nuclear Security Admin-istration's nonproliferation strategy in which weapons-grade materials are permanently eliminated to prevent exploitation by terrorists. It is also part of an agreement in which Russia will dispose of similar amounts of bomb-grade plutonium.
In 2007, Duke Power agreed to use the fuel in its reactors but dropped out of the program in 2009 after two years of testing.
Currently, Tennessee Valley Authority, which agreed in February to test -- and possibly use -- MOX in five of its reactors, is the only potential client.
Although it is the only current prospect, TVA and its reactors could theoretically use 80 to 100 percent of the MOX plant's eventual production, according to department officials. However, the search remains active to recruit a variety of clients.
Southern Nuclear, which operates Plant Vogtle and two other nuclear plants, will not use MOX.
"We have no plans to use MOX fuel at any of our nuclear energy plants," company spokeswoman Beth Thomas said.
SCANA Corp., which operates the V.C. Summer Plant in South Carolina, doesn't want MOX either.
"At this time, we have no plans to use mixed oxide fuels," company spokesman Elwood Hamilton said.
Tom Clements, southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, attended meetings held last week in Tennessee and Alabama to discuss the potential testing of MOX fuel in TVA reactors.
"There was lots of opposition, but there wasn't a lot of participation," Clements said. "But I don't think a lot of utilities are going to want to get into such a messy program."
Concerns, he said, included the wisdom of mixing surplus military materials with commercial power, the risk of accidents, questions about transportation security and whether the MOX program could provide a timely and consistent supply of commercial reactor fuel.
"They're in a very dicey position right now," Clements said. "It is not at all clear whether TVA will go forward."
Further complicating the situation, he said, is the uncertainty of where the Energy Department will locate an important facility to dismantle and process plutonium "pits" from surplus warheads.
The initial plan was to construct a freestanding Pit Disassembly & Conversion Facility adjacent to the MOX complex. An additional alternative in which existing buildings in the K Reactor area would house that process is also being studied.
The ultimate site will house a plant where pits will be processed into a powdered oxide form for use in the MOX plant.
Clements and other environmental groups contend delays in making such a decision could prevent the plant from producing commercial fuel on schedule, which could further hinder efforts to find commercial clients for the MOX.
"If they further delay the pit disassembly operation, they're not going to have adequate feed to operate the plant once its ready," he said.
Officials said there will be no shortage of raw material to operate the MOX plant as soon as it is completed.
A contingency plan is already in place in which up to 9.8 metric tons of plutonium oxide -- enough to operate the MOX plant for six to seven years -- would be available to serve as a buffer before the pit disassembly program goes on line, Bromberg said.