U.S. Department of Energy is funding the project which has global significance
AREVA announced this week that its joint venture Shaw AREVA MOX Services, LLC and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have signed an agreement for construction of the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site (SRS), located in Aiken, South Carolina.
Medieval alchemists who wanted to convert lead into gold would understand the intent if not the physical process of converting weapons grade plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. The facility will remove impurities from surplus weapon-grade plutonium and mix it with uranium oxide to form MOX fuel pellets for reactor fuel assemblies. The assemblies will then be used in commercial nuclear power reactors.
Through this $2.7 billion agreement DOE is exercising the construction option that was included in the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility contract signed in 1999. The agreement’s scope includes the actual construction of the main MOX facility and all support facilities; cold start-up of the MOX plant; and continued support of Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensing activities for the project. Work began at the site in August 2007. Fuel fabrication operations are expected to begin at SRS in 2016.
The design of the 600,000-square-foot facility is based on AREVA’s La Hague and Melox fuel treatment facilities in France. MOX fuel has been used for the past several decades in Europe.
Michael A. McMurphy, [left] president and CEO of AREVA Inc., said, “We are proud to sign this agreement with the Department of Energy for the MOX facility, which will be the keystone of one of the most important nonproliferation programs currently underway in the world. Through this program, the Shaw-AREVA team is helping the United States achieve the disposition of 34 metric tons of surplus weapon-grade plutonium by converting it into fuel that will be used to generate electricity.”
SRS contract follows closely a similar deal in Japan
This is the second contract of its kind signed by the French nuclear giant. On April 28th Areva signed a contract to supply MOX fuel in Japan for use in commercial nuclear reactors.
Through this contract with Kansai, a leading utility, AREVA will supply the utility with 16 MOX fuel assemblies for units 3 and 4 of the Takahama nuclear power plant, located in Fukui Prefecture of Japan.
The contract follows the renewal of Japan’s recycling program. In 2006, AREVA signed agreements to supply MOX fuel to three other Japanese utilities: Chubu, Kyushu and Shikoku. According to World Nuclear News Japan's Federation of Electric Power Companies has said that all of its nine members would use plutonium as MOX fuel in 16-18 reactors from 2010 under the pluthermal program. About six tonnes of fissile plutonium per year is expected to be loaded into power reactors.
The plutonium recovered from the treatment of Kansai’s spent fuel at AREVA’s La Hague plant will be recycled at its MELOX facility (briefing) and sent back to Japan in the form of MOX fuel assemblies. AREVA’s MELOX facility, has been fabricating MOX fuel assemblies for nuclear power plants in various countries since 1995.
Political history of the South Carolina plant
The U.S. has an agreement with Russia to convert 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel (MOX). The U.S. plan now plans to go beyond the joint goals of the agreement and take plutonium from dismantled nuclear warheads. The U.S. is providing Russia with $400 million in assistance to help with their part of the program.
Russia plans to use its MOX fuel in fast breeder reactors. According to a report published in World Nuclear News last October, one FBR already operates at Beloyarsk (unit 3), supplying 560 MWe to the grid, while Beloyarsk 4 is under construction now. This 800 MWe FBR should operate from 2012 and is planned to use all 34 tonnes of weapons plutonium during its life.
In November 2007 Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman and Sergey Kiriyenko, director of Russia's Atomic Energy Agency, Rosatom, in a joint statement outlined a "mutual understanding" as to how Russia's plutonium would be disposed of and reiterated both countries' commitment to the program.
The agreement "reflects measurable progress towards disposing of a significant amount of weapons grade plutonium in Russia," Bodman said.
William Tobey, (left) deputy administrator at DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration, said in an interview with the Associated Press that the agreement should resolve some of the key concerns in Congress and keep the U.S. program on track.
"We nailed down some important details," said Tobey.
According to AP, a key part of the deal is a promise from the Russians that the reactors used to dispose of the plutonium will be modified to burn more than they produce and that the plutonium they produce will not be weapons grade.
The plan is positioned as a nonproliferation program, but disposition of the weapons grade plutonium slated for the MOX fuel plants in both countries is expected to take several decades and cover only a fraction of the inventory.
Former Sen. Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonproliferation advocacy group, called the agreement a "major advance toward achieving the elimination of enough plutonium to make more than 8,000 nuclear bombs."
The agreement calls for 34 metric tons of Russia's excess plutonium to be turned into a mixed oxide, or MOX, fuel and then burned in its existing BN600 fast-neutron reactor and in a larger version, the BN800, once it is built. It also calls for continued U.S. help for Russian development of a more advanced gas-turbine reactor that could speed up the disposition.
Opposition in the Blue Ridge
Not everyone is happy with these developments. Two environmental groups, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), have vigorously opposed licensing and construction of the MOX fuel plant at SRS.
A group called Nuclear Watch South and another called Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, tried repeatedly to use court actions to stop the construction agreement. Their expert witness is Edwin Lyman who's hostility to nuclear energy is well known.
Ed Lyman, (left) the nuclear expert at UCS, told the news media last Fall use of the relatively small BN600 reactor "will put Russian plutonium disposition on the slow track" because the reactor can burn only about three-tenths of a ton of plutonium a year, and the larger reactor has yet to be completed.
Lyman said "this is a total retreat from the original concept" which would have disposed of the plutonium in larger light-water reactors, an option he says the Russian rejected.
He neglected to mention the Russian reactor is under construction and will begin operation in 2012 four years before the U.S. plant has a hot start-up.
For its part the Department of Energy issued a rare rebuke to the three environmental groups. In a statement from NNSA, which operates SRS, spokesperson Julianne Smith said,
"We are disappointed that this group continues to make frivolous and unsupported claims about this important nonproliferation project that will not only get rid of nuclear waste material but also bring local jobs to the community."
More recently Frank N. von Hippel, a major authority on nuclear nonproliferation, wrote an article published in the April 2008 issue of Scientific American in which he also criticized plans for the MOX fuel plant.
Despite these opponents, the U.S. and Russia see the reduction of the threat of nuclear weapons being used as the primary benefit of the program.
No MOX in U.K.
The Guardian newspaper reported in March 2008 a nuclear plant built at a cost of £470m to provide atomic fuel to be used in foreign power stations has produced almost nothing since it was opened six years ago, the government has admitted. Plant managers have been working in circles trying to fix technical problems
The mixed oxide facility at Sellafield in Cumbria was originally predicted to have an annual throughput of 120 tonnes of fuel.
The energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, has admitted in response to a parliamentary question that it had managed only 2.6 tonnes in any one 12-month period between 2002 and 2006-07.
According to the Guardian the British Nuclear Group has been forced to meet the needs of Swiss and other contracted customers for MOX fuel through buying alternative supplies from France and Belgium.
On the Web
World Nuclear Association - Mixed Oxide Fuel
Scientific American - MOX fuel process