Originally created 02/28/03

Company files to test MOX fuel



AIKEN - Duke Energy Corp. applied Thursday to burn its first test batch of mixed-oxide fuel, despite uncertainties about how the commercial power supplier will get it and when.

Testing at one of the company's Charlotte, N.C.-area reactors would be in anticipation of a MOX fuel fabrication plant at Savannah River Site.

Slated to be operational by 2008, the plant would establish the U.S. MOX program. Duke Energy wants its reactors to be in full-scale use of the fuel that year.

The program is on a set timetable because of an agreement with Russia. Although Russian efforts are lagging, both countries plan to convert 34 metric tons of surplus weapons plutonium into fuel by 2019.

The SRS plant has yet to be approved for construction, which couldn't start until next year, so officials hope the first test fuel assembly will come from Europe.

If Duke Energy has to wait for SRS-created fuel, the United States' program could be delayed by years.

"The timeline they're presenting is fraught with problems," says Tom Clements, of Greenpeace International. His group opposes MOX because, it says, there are safer ways of dealing with surplus plutonium.

France's Cadarache fabrication plant, owned by energy company COGEMA, is the leading candidate for the test fuel. Despite Cadarache's planned shutdown by July, Duke Energy officials are confident it will remain an option.

"We believe the Cadarache plant will be available for this mission past this summer," said Steve Nesbit, the MOX fuel project manager for Duke Power.

The other plant that could produce a test assembly is in Belgium. So far, that country has been cool to U.S. requests.

Both countries have found MOX a contentious issue.

Mr. Nesbit said the test fuel's origin is irrelevant for the purpose of the request. Regulators are more concerned with "what it's going to look like and how it's going to work with our reactor," he said.

Duke Energy hopes to start the testing in 2005 at an undesignated reactor in either its McGuire Nuclear Station in Huntersville, N.C., or Catawba Nuclear Station in York, S.C.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has received Duke Energy's request to use test fuel assemblies. After several weeks of review, a notice will be published in the Federal Register announcing the public comment period.

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