Originally created 09/06/98

Company requesting materials



Duke Energy wants to be one of Savannah River Site's newest customers.

The Charlotte, N.C.-based power company asked the U.S. Department of Energy last week to allow it to use nuclear-weapons material in fuel for some of its nuclear reactors in the Carolinas.

If the deal is approved, a proposed SRS facility likely would produce the fuel.

The Energy Department named SRS as the preferred site for the mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility in June.

The $500 million plant, expected to create about 250 jobs at the site, would process plutonium -- a highly radioactive ingredient in nuclear weapons -- into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors.

The United States must dispose of 50 tons of excess plutonium under the terms of arms-reduction treaties with Russia. The mixed-oxide plant would dispose of about 33 tons of plutonium; the remaining 17 tons would be encased in a man-made glass, probably at the defense waste processing facility at SRS.

The Energy Department is expected to decide whether to approve Duke Energy's request before Nov. 30. The utility would use the fuel for 15 years, beginning in 2007.

The company would use the fuel in its reactors at its Catawba station in York County, S.C., and its McGuire station north of Charlotte.

Besides asking the Energy Department to allow it to use plutonium in reactor fuel, Duke Energy also bid for a contract to help make the fuel.

The utility's engineering arm, Duke Engineering & Services, submitted a bid in conjunction with Cogema, a French company that makes mixed-oxide fuel for European reactors.

Besides Duke Energy and Cogema, two other groups also bid for the contract.

German conglomerate Siemens heads one of the groups; British Nuclear Fuels Limited heads the second group.

The mixed-oxide plant is one of three parts to the Energy Department's plan to dispose of its excess plutonium.

Department officials already have named SRS as the preferred site for both the mixed-oxide plant and the facility to encase plutonium in glass.

The site is competing with Pantex, a plant near Amarillo, Texas, for the third facility.

That plant, called the pit-disassembly-and-conversion facility, would take apart the "pits" -- the radioactive cores of nuclear weapons -- and convert the pure plutonium metal inside into a form suitable for use in commercial nuclear reactors.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has said he will decide upon that facility's location by year's end.

Some citizens' groups have said they oppose the use of plutonium in commercial reactors.

Brad Morse with the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability said producing MOX fuel at SRS and using it in Duke's reactors would be dangerous for South Carolinians.

Shipping highly radioactive material not only increases the chance of an accident, it also presents an opportunity for terrorists to seize weapons-grade plutonium, he said.

Susan Corbett of Columbia has set up Southern Coalition Opposing Plutonium in Energy, the Economy and the Environment, or SCOPE, and has held several meetings and plans to hold seminars on MOX across the state.

"Those of us in Columbia and around the state feel that this is a statewide issue," Corbett said. "The DOE needs to slow down and allow more public input."