“All the results were consistent with safe and acceptable performance,” said Kevin McCoy, an advisory engineer with AREVA – a component of the consortium building the government’s $4.8 billion Mixed Oxide Fuel Facility, or “MOX Plant,” at Savannah River Site.
During a briefing before U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff, company officials shared results of independent tests conducted by Oak Ridge National Laboratory on French-made MOX fuel samples that were tested in Duke’s Catawba 1 reactor for two 18-month cycles from June 2005 to May 2008.
Unlike traditional nuclear fuels, MOX is manufactured by blending small amounts of plutonium with uranium, rendering the plutonium permanently unavailable for use in weapons. The MOX project in South Carolina is designed to dispose of 34 metric tons of pure plutonium – mostly from dismantled warheads.
The MOX fuel pellets irradiated at Catawba 1 were examined and tested in many different ways, with extensive documentation of each step in the process.
“All of these examinations, as Oak Ridge will happily attest, were detailed and thorough,” McCoy told regulators, during a meeting at the NRC’s Rockville, Md., headquarters, made accessible to The Augusta Chronicle via telephone monitor.
MOX fuel containing reactor-grade, rather than weapons-grade plutonium, has been used successfully in Europe, where about 5,900 assemblies have been irradiated in 39 reactors, he said.
Even when subtle differences between the two variations of MOX fuel are considered, all the data supports predictions that weapons-grade MOX will perform adequately under U.S. irradiation conditions, he said.
Critics of the MOX project are awaiting more details of the Oak Ridge study.
“We still have seen no data whatsoever, so the question is when the full details of that report will be public,” said Tom Clements, the nonproliferation policy director for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability.
The Duke tests, he said, were halted after just two fuel cycles, while some reactors are designed to use fuel through three complete cycles. “So they are at risk, if they base all their documentation on that one test, of only being able to license the stuff for shorter, or fewer, cycles,” Clements said.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, which manages the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile and is in charge of the MOX project, has acknowledged challenges finding clients willing to use the fuel assemblies.
Tennessee Valley Authority and a small utility in Richland, Wash., are evaluating the idea, but no formal user agreements have been completed.
The MOX fuel plant at Savannah River Site, in its sixth year of construction, employs about 2,200 workers and is 60 percent complete. It is scheduled to open in 2016, with production of commercial fuel commencing by 2018.