The duel about mixed-oxide fuel is not done.
Some nuclear-watchdog groups continue to raise concerns about the use of the fuel, commonly called MOX fuel, in commercial nuclear-power reactors. Former Energy Secretary Federico Pena announced in June that a proposed plant at Savannah River Site would make the fuel, disposing of about 36 tons of excess plutonium in the process. The radioactive metal is a key component of nuclear weapons.
The proposed plant at SRS would cost about $560 million and create about 350 permanent jobs and 500 construction jobs at a site hit by layoffs during the early 1990s, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Energy. But some nuclear activists say the plants would be too costly and create a fuel too dangerous to be used in commercial nuclear power reactors.
Instead of MOX, the Energy Department should dispose of the plutonium by encasing it within radioactive glass at plants such as the Defense Waste Processing Facility at SRS, some activists said. Energy Department officials already plan to use the method to dispose of about 19 tons of plutonium unsuitable for use in MOX fuel.
"The problem is what we leave for generations to come," said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "We've all agreed that federal money will come here, and that there will be jobs created at Savannah River Site. The question is what the penalty is of doing it one way versus the other."
The use of MOX fuel in commercial reactors increases the risk of a nuclear accident, according to Dr. Makhijani and other observers. MOX fuel, which is more radioactive than traditional uranium fuel, would increase the chance of reactor failure in plants not designed for its use, they said.
A report issued in January by the Nuclear Control Institute found that Energy Department researchers underestimated the number of deaths that would occur from such an accident.
Energy Department officials have said they will not respond to the report until it has been reviewed by other, independent scientists, but Energy Department spokesman Matthew Donoghue said in January that the department does ``take issue with many of the basic assumptions.''
Under a current Energy Department plan, utilities Duke Power and Virginia Power would use MOX fuel in reactors in the Carolinas and Virginia.
Other MOX supporters have said that the use of the fuel would cause no problems in commercial reactors. The institute's report, they said, assumed the most severe and improbable of nuclear accidents, when a reactor's concrete containment dome cracks and allows radioactive material to spill into the environment.
``The way our reactors are designed, it's not likely that the material would ever get out into the environment,'' said Dale Klein, chairman of the National Resource Center for Plutonium in Amarillo, Texas. ``All of our reactors have multiple barriers that the radiation and materials would have to escape before they entered the environment.
``There should be essentially no differences in the use of MOX in a commercial reactor versus the traditional enriched uranium fuel, with the exception that you change some of your control-rod processes.''
Besides criticizing the use of MOX fuel in commercial reactors, some activists also have raised concerns about the safety of the proposed MOX fuel fabrication facility at SRS.
Under a contract signed in March, the plant would be built and operated by a consortium of companies, including the French firm COGEMA. Some groups have questioned the safety of allowing the foreign firm to operate the plant, since its safety records in Europe are not open to public inspection.
``It is highly inappropriate that the Energy Department is relying on COGEMA's home-country record for its nuclear expertise on MOX as one of the factors in its contract, but not making public the related environmental, safety and health record,'' Dr. Makhijani said.
Before awarding the contract to COGEMA and its partners, Energy Department researchers performed an analysis of the proposed plant's impact upon the environment, said Bert Stevenson, director of outreach for the department's Office of Fissile Materials Disposition.
``We have asked for, and obtained from this consortium, an environmental analysis,'' he said. ``We asked them for the environmental impact of the fuel fabrication facility that they would propose, and of using MOX in their reactors.
``As a result of that, we felt that those impacts were sufficiently small and that awarding the contract should go forward.''
The results of the study will be published soon, Mr. Stevenson said.
MOX fuel is necessary because it is the only method of plutonium disposal endorsed by Russia, which has massive stockpiles of the radioactive metal, some MOX supporters said. Russian officials believe that other disposal methods do not ensure that the plutonium cannot be extracted and reused in weapons.
Some observers said they fear that Russia will not agree to any plutonium-disposal plan that omits MOX, thus increasing the likelihood that its plutonium could reach nations or terrorists eager for an atomic arsenal.
``When you step back from this, what we're all trying to do internationally is get these weapons materials in a nonweapons form,'' said Ambrose Schwallie, president of Westinghouse Savannah River Co., which operates SRS for the Energy Department. ``When it comes down to it, in the interest of getting an international solution, we're going to have to agree with the Russians to do both.''
But some activists said they disagreed with that position.
``I don't know what the date was when America's domestic policy was dictated by the Russian nuclear establishment,'' Dr. Makhijani said. ``Since 1996, America has caved in to all Russian demands.''
The use of MOX fuel would create a ``plutonium economy,'' under which countries would come to rely upon the dangerous element for nuclear power, Dr. Makhijani said. Such an economy would cause plutonium to proliferate, and some countries even could reprocess the plutonium in spent MOX fuel for reuse, he said.
``They've always wanted a plutonium economy,'' he said of Russia. ``The MOX plant is now seen as, and will be, the foundation for a plutonium economy.''
Some MOX supporters dismiss such statements.
``That's totally false,'' Dr. Klein said. ``The amounts of weapons-grade plutonium that will be dispositioned through MOX fuel is not of the magnitude to make it economical to reprocess it.''
Brandon Haddock covers energy issues for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3409 or firstname.lastname@example.org.