A new player has emerged in the National Nuclear Security Administration's quest for commercial nuclear power producers willing to explore the use of mixed oxide fuel to be made at a $4.86 billion facility under construction at Savannah River Site.
Energy Northwest in Richland, Wash., is considering the use of MOX fuel at its Columbia Generating Station nuclear reactor and could begin testing experimental lead "pins" of MOX as early as 2013, according to a proposal shared with the U.S. Energy Department. A company spokesman, however, said the date was speculative and the process could take much longer.
The MOX plant being built in South Carolina is designed to dispose of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium from dismantled nuclear bombs by blending small amounts of the material with uranium to create fuel usable in commercial power reactors.
The program is part of the U.S. nonproliferation strategy to eliminate weapons-grade materials and prevent their exploitation by terrorists. It is also part of an agreement in which Russia will dispose of similar amounts of bomb-grade plutonium.
According to documents obtained by the Friends of the Earth environmental group, the initial MOX pellets would be fabricated at the Energy Department's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, using a design developed by Global Nuclear Fuel, a venture of GE, Toshiba and Hitachi.
If the program is deemed successful, it could lead to the use of MOX fuels made in South Carolina.
The test program would also require a letter of intent to persuade the Energy Department to help finance production of the initial pins, the report said.
Such a letter would include a pledge from Energy Northwest to reload with fuels made at the department's MOX plant.
Tennessee Valley Authority, which agreed last year to explore using MOX in five of its reactors, is the only potential client for the fuels.
In 2007, Duke Energy agreed to use the fuel in its reactors but dropped out of the program in 2009 after two years of testing.
Concerns about the program have included the costs of converting commercial reactors to specifications to use MOX fuel and the potential for increased security and transportation costs.
Tom Clements, Southeastern Nuclear Campaign coordinator with Friends of the Earth, said documents obtained from Energy Northwest show there are lingering reservations about MOX.
"Due to nonproliferation and safety concerns, weapons plutonium should not be used as fuel in the Columbia Generating Station or any other nuclear power reactor," Clements said, noting the company executives were also concerned about the lack of interest in the fuel from other power producers, which, as one Energy Northwest e-mail discussion noted, "doesn't look good politically."
The MOX program laid out in the documents is also speculative, as it would require licensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and would be dependent on the capacity to fabricate MOX test assemblies made from weapons-grade plutonium, Clements said.