The U.S. Department of Energy's $4.86 billion MOX facility at SRS, scheduled to open in 2016, is designed to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus, weapons-grade plutonium by using small amounts to make fuel for commercial reactors.
The termination of Duke's contract -- disclosed Feb. 27 in a company financial filing with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission -- raises questions about the government's ability to find power plants willing to use the fuel, said Tom Clements, the Southeast nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth.
"What that means, at least for right now, is that DOE has no reactors lined up to use MOX fuel," he said, noting that the project contractor, Shaw Areva MOX Services, issued an appeal in October urging companies to join the program.
Donna Martin, the communications director for Shaw Areva, said in a statement Friday that Duke has expressed "continuing interest" in the MOX program despite the termination of the contract. Shaw Areva "is continuing to work with Duke and other utilities," she said, and the company will have no further comment.
Duke Energy, based in Charlotte, N.C., had planned to use the fuel in four reactors at its Catawba nuclear plant in South Carolina and its McGuire plant near Charlotte.
"The way the contract was written, it automatically terminated on Dec. 1 if new terms had not been agreed upon," Duke spokeswoman Rita Sipe said. "We more or less ran out of time."
She refused to elaborate on any further negotiations between Duke and DOE.
"We sent MOX Services a letter saying we are still supportive of the program," she said, but "we're not getting into specific details other than to say we're still talking."
Mr. Clements said he believes the contract termination could be linked to problems with French-made MOX fuels tested by Duke in recent years.
Friends of the Earth and the Union of Concerned Scientists reported in August that a test of MOX fuel in Duke's Catawba-1 reactor failed because of abnormal performance and because the assemblies were pulled from the reactor after only two of the necessary three 18-month irradiation cycles.
Mr. Clements said the failed test and delays in the project might have caused Duke to reconsider its commitment.
"They could not reliably count on DOE to reliably provide fuel for their reactors," he said.
Ms. Sipe said the lapsed contract had nothing to do with the tests, which are routinely conducted anytime a utility considers using a different kind of fuel.
"We had done a lot of analysis, as we do with all fuels, of how it performs," she said
The 600,000-square-foot MOX facility is about 15 percent complete. The concept of mixing weapons-grade plutonium with traditional uranium oxide reactor fuel is part of a broad effort to dispose of surplus nuclear weapons and related materials as part of an international nonproliferation plan.
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Facts about Duke Energy and the MOX Fuel Plan: