Data on European mixed oxide fuel made from reactor-grade plutonium is sufficient to predict the performance of U.S. MOX fuel that will contain weapons-grade plutonium, according to the company building the government’s $4.8 billion MOX plant in South Carolina.
“Areva has almost 40 years of experience with MOX fuel, so this is not a new experience,” said Chris Lewis, the MOX project manager for Areva, a component of Shaw Areva MOX Services. “To date, we have not identified any fuel rod issues or failures tied to MOX itself.”
Lewis and other Areva officials met Tuesday with Nuclear Regulatory Commission staffers at NRC headquarters in Maryland to discuss the level of testing that might be required before U.S.-made MOX fuel rods can be licensed for use in commercial reactors. The nonproprietary portion of the meeting was made available via teleconference.
MOX is widely used in Europe, where it is made with uranium and plutonium recovered through reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.
The plant being built at Savannah River Site will use surplus weapons-grade plutonium from dismantled warheads, rendering the material unavailable for destructive purposes.
Lewis told NRC regulators that the two types of plutonium are so similar that additional testing is unnecessary.
“Plutonium is plutonium – it all behaves the same,” he said. “The difference is in the isotopic ratios.”
Anthony Mendiola, the chief of the NRC’s nuclear performance and code review branch, noted that there are no licensed commercial MOX programs in the U.S.
“I’d say that any MOX fuel, from a recycled source or from weapons-grade material, would be a new fuel type,” he said. “Going forward, we need to be sure it is well defined.”
The use of foreign data to license a product made and used in the U.S. would not necessarily eliminate the need for testing, he said.
“These differences will need to be reassessed,” he said. “We will not license any application until we determine and confirm it is safe.”
A small quantity of MOX fuel samples – made in France from U.S. weapons-grade plutonium – was tested in a Duke Power reactor in York, S.C., for two 18-month cycles from June 2005 to May 2008. A third round of irradiation was canceled after just one assembly in four met the criteria for reinsertion for another cycle.
The third cycle was merely an option, Lewis said. The decision to cancel further tests was made by the utility and was unrelated to an issue with swelling or growth in some fuel assemblies.