Two major nuclear construction projects in the area are separated only by a river, wooded distance of about 13 miles, and by bureaucratic and materials science issues.
Units 3 and 4 at Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle and Savannah River Site’s mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility are separated by government and private land almost entirely inaccessible to the general public, with a couple of minor exceptions. While the designs and purposes of each are entirely different, the commercial Plant Vogtle and the Department of Energy-run MOX facility could have entangled ties in the future.
The MOX project is a product of a now-suspended nuclear weapons nonproliferation agreement between the U.S. and Russia. The agreement was signed in 2000, and construction began in 2007. The facility is intended to process weapons-usable plutonium, 34 metric tons under the agreement, and turn it into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors like those at Vogtle.
In the early days of MOX, Duke Energy had signed up as a customer to purchase the fuel, but as delays and construction costs mounted, MOX was left with no foreseeable start date and zero customers.
According to Areva Nuclear Materials LLC, one of the companies involved in MOX design and construction, the Energy Department planned for a subsidized cost structure to make the MOX fuel more attractive.
Mixed-oxide fuel was meant to be lower than market costs for other forms of nuclear fuel to incentivize the destruction of former weapons-grade plutonium. Areva said the fuel is designed to perform the same as natural uranium in the reactors. A spokesman said global examples over the past three decades demonstrate that.
Plant Vogtle, which could have four operating reactor units when the MOX plant is finished, could make the switch to the mixed-oxide fuel.
According to Georgia Power spokesman Jacob Hawkins, “In order to accommodate the potential use of MOX fuel, modifications would be required for the plant’s physical structure, as well as the processes and procedures used to operate the facility.”
Georgia Power, which owns the largest share of Vogtle, said operating agreements with the other entities govern significant operation changes. However, it was unclear whether a fuel change would be subject to those agreements.
Hawkins noted that Vogtle’s proximity to the MOX plant isn’t a major influential factor in determining future fuel purchases.
“Current fuel at Plant Vogtle uses Low Enriched Uranium rather than Highly Enriched Uranium . Cost of fuel is a factor, nuclear or otherwise, with any generation we use to serve our customers, and we consider those costs as part of our long-term planning process. All decisions we make regarding operations are driven by safety, compliance with regulations and our ability to provide our customers with reliable and affordable energy,” he said.
Once the MOX facility is operational, purchase and transportation of the fuel would be subject to Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing and regulations. However, prospects look grim for MOX.
The facility was scheduled for completion in 2014, but Energy Department outlooks say the facility won’t be finished until after 2045. The original expected cost was around $5 billion, but the unfinished project has already reached that level, and costs are climbing.
The contractor companies and the federal government overseeing construction don’t agree on completion percentages or future costs, either. Contract companies say the construction is around 70 percent complete, a number echoed by congressional lawmakers including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C. The Energy Department claims it is about 30 percent complete.
Aside from the disagreements, if the funding were made available and contractors were able to complete the MOX plant, the fuel could find use right here where it would be created. The local impact could benefit both defense nuclear processes at SRS and commercial production at Vogtle, if the switch can ever be thrown at the MOX facility.
“Our company is always evaluating new technologies that could add value for our customers,” Hawkins said. “We stay informed of industry developments, including policy and regulations, and will support those activities if they serve the interests of our customers.”
Reach Thomas Gardiner at (706) 823-3339 or firstname.lastname@example.org.