Originally created 09/01/02

Nuclear plants avoid conversion



AIKEN - The Department of Energy's mixed-oxide fuel project will turn readily available plutonium from shelved nuclear weapons into a fuel component for commercial nuclear reactors.

However, nuclear power plants aren't rushing to convert their reactors to burn the fuel, which will be available for little or nothing.

The reason: The expensive program is driven more by an international disarmament agreement than by economics. The United States and Russia formalized an agreement in 2000 to dispose of 34 tons each of weapons-grade plutonium, a process that will take years to complete.

Duke Energy, the company whose affiliate is contracted to build the plant at Savannah River Site, has applied for licensing at its Catawba plant near York, S.C., and its McGuire plant near Huntersville, N.C.

Virginia Power had agreed to use MOX fuel in its Mount Anna plant but backed out in April 2000, saying it wanted to apply the capital toward newly purchased plants elsewhere.

So far, there have been no other takers.

Regina Waller, a spokeswoman for Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant, said parent company Southern Nuclear decided against MOX because of the expense of converting the nuclear power plant near Waynesboro, Ga., and converting the plutonium to fuel. Government incentives were not as persuasive as the bottom line.

"The economics of the fuel were problematic," she said. "We did not want to go into a situation to commit to using a fuel that's more costly than what it is now."

Scientists say typical low-enriched uranium can cost as little as one-fifth what it will cost to produce the MOX fuel.

MOX and uranium assemblies produce about the same amount of power - enough to supply 150,000 homes with electricity for a month. When combined with uranium to create MOX, 1 gram of plutonium produces electricity equal to that from 1 to 2 tons of oil.

Creating a MOX assembly is expensive. The estimated cost of processing plutonium will be $110 million per ton.

Many industry observers say the $3.8 billion cost attached to the program, which includes the SRS fuel fabrication plant, is far too conservative.

The costs come with the new infrastructure, operation expenses and stepped-up security. The power plants, too, will have to make their own costly adjustments - although with the help of generous government subsidies.

Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Department of Energy, said there is a positive side, at least for the consumer, to using MOX.

"The cost savings of using the discounted government-supplied MOX fuel will be passed on to the ratepayers, although we expect the ratepayers' savings will be minimal," he said. He could give no specifics.

Nuclear power is the cheapest form of energy, but nuclear power plants are the most expensive to build, according to Brian Duncan, a spokesman for South Carolina Electric & Gas.

"You haven't seen many new nuclear plants because it's too hard to do," he said. "What's needed is a more standard design and a more streamlined process to be licensed. What you're seeing rather than new construction is license extension (for old plants)."

SRS initially planned to bake 19 tons of the total plutonium scheduled for disposition into ceramic pucks, then store them inside glass-filled stainless steel canisters. That plan, known as immobilization, was abandoned last year because the Russians feared it would not eliminate the plutonium, said Matthew Bunn, a Harvard arms control expert who conducted classified research for the Clinton administration.

Although MOX will be more expensive, U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said a dollar figure cannot be put on world peace.

"MOX is a win-win for South Carolina and the world," he said.

Reach Eric Williamson at (803) 279-6895 or eric.williamson@augustachronicle.com.