Nations hungry for energy are investing billions in new plants to make it
Recent claims by environmental groups, and some attention in mainstream media reports, on the outcome of a long-term core test of MOX fuel at Duke Energy's Catawba nuclear power station missed two essential points. One of them is the growing commercial potential of MOX fuel and the other is that it is safe to use.
On the safety issue this week two environmental groups issued a joint press release citing the apparent premature end to the test of an experimental MOX fuel assembly test. In a leap of logic that looks like Superman's flight over tall buildings in a single bound, they called on the Department of Energy (DOE) to suspend the entire MOX fuel program at Savannah River. The agency broke ground for construction of a $4.5 billion MOX fuel plant in August 2007. These same environmental groups tried to invoke IAEA inspections as a method to shutdown the startup of construction. (See prior coverage on this blog.)
Friends of the Earth (press release) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) said the test fuel assemblies, produced by AREVA, grew longer than expected in the reactor. This excessive growth, they claimed, is a safety hazard because it can deform and damage the MOX fuel. Duke Energy informed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) about the test results in a June 10 report. (Search for "ML081650181" at the NRC's Adams web site.) The two groups based their press releases on the report. Here's what they said.
"The failure of the plutonium fuel experiment is another major setback for the MOX program," said Tom Clements, FOE's Southeastern Nuclear Campaign coordinator.
UCS Senior Staff Scientist Edwin Lyman said, "To go forward with MOX now, AREVA would have to redesign the MOX fuel, and Duke would have to repeat the entire experiment, delaying the testing program by at least eight years. DOE should instead dispose of the plutonium directly by mixing it with radioactive waste and encasing it in glass, which would be safer and cheaper than continuing the MOX program."
What's wrong with the rush to judgement by UCS and FOE?
First, tests of new nuclear fuel materials often fail to meet all expectations. That's why they are called tests. A failed test does not doom an entire program even if its opponents would wish it to be so. The logic of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) proves only one thing, and that is if wishes were fishes, Edwin Lyman would be knee deep in flounder. He'd like nothing more than an "eight year" delay in testing MOX fuel. There is something fishy about his claim the test showed the fuel is not safe.
Second, there was no compromise of the safety of the Catawba plant (left). Areva, which carried out the test, brought the lead test assemblies (LTAs) through two flawless cycles of irradiation before pulling them from the reactor. Areva and Duke still plan to use 20-40% MOX fuel in future loads at the Catawba plant. With billions of dollars in nuclear plant at stake, which produces 2,258 MWe, neither firm is going to make these kinds of plans unless they are very sure of what they are doing and that the regulatory agencies will accept them. The utility points out that MOX fuel has been safely manufactured, transported, and used in Europe for more than 20 years, and is currently used in 35 reactors there. (See Duke's plain English explanation of its plans to use MOX fuel.)
Third, Areva has formally refuted the claims by UCS and FOE. Spokesman Jarret Adams told World Nuclear News that the assemblies completed their test run after their second 18-month operating cycle. At that point, an inspection revealed that they had "extremely slight" growth beyond an acceptance limit, which is defined separately from safety limits. Fuel assemblies for a pressurized water reactor (PWR) like Catawba are typically around four meters long and feature springs to accommodate the thermal expansion of around 15mm expected during their lifetimes in the reactor core.
The future of MOX fuel - swords into plough shares
The energy potential from MOX fuel is so significant that its market share is expected to rise to 5% of all fuel loadings worldwide by 2010. According to industry studies, a single recycle of plutonium in the form of MOX fuel increases the energy derived from the original uranium by 12% and if the uranium is also recycled this becomes about 22%. MOX fuel in this form cannot be used in nuclear weapons or explosives.
The global inventory of nuclear materials available to be recycled, according to the World Nuclear Association, as of July 2008, is mind boggling.
- 320 tonnes of plutonium
- 45,000 tonnes of uranium from spent fuel
- 70 tonnes of plutonium from military sources
- 230 tonnes of spent fuel from military sources
The U.S., France, Russia, and Japan have all realized the energy potential of MOX fuel. The U.S. is building a $4.5 billion MOX fuel fabrication plant in South Carolina which will convert 34 tons of weapons grade plutonium to commercial reactor fuel. A similar plant will be built in Russia with similar production goals. These two plants are the cornerstones of the joint nonproliferation program supported by both countries. It is the ultimate "swords into plough shares" program.
The example from Japan
Japan, which has no nuclear weapons, is building a MOX fuel plant that is about to commence hot start-up of operations and should go into production next year. Here is what Japan Nuclear Fuels said about the safety of MOX fuel which is why they plan to use it.
It has been verified that there is no significant differences in characteristics between MOX fuel and uranium fuel and that the safety of reactors can be ensured with MOX fuel as well as with uranium fuel on the basis of the experience and various data obtained. Existing light water reactors for power generating facilities can be utilized in their current status by replacing part of the uranium fuel in the reactors with MOX fuel.
Reuters reports that a Japanese utility is building a 1,400 MWe nuclear power plant that will run entirely on MOX fuel. The plant is due to be completed by 2012.
Areva signed a contract in April 2008 to supply MOX fuel to the KANSAI electric power utility in Japan. This 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.
Since 1995, AREVA’s MELOX facility, has been fabricating MOX fuel assemblies for nuclear power plants in various countries, including France, Germany, Switzerland, Japan and the United States. With more than 1,300 metric tons produced to date, MELOX is the world’s leading producer of MOX fuel. Areva is also a key contractor building the U.S. MOX fuel plant. (See prior coverage on this blog.)
Japan is building a MOX fuel plant at Rokkasho. Japanese electric utilities are aiming to use MOX fuel in 16-to-18 reactors by 2010. In the early stage of the program, the utilities are planning to use MOX fuel manufactured by Areva. Once the MOX fuel fabrication plant at Rokkasho commences operation, plutonium recovered there will also be used by Japanese utilities. The planned MOX fabrication plant in Japan will have a processing capacity of 130 tons a year. It is expected to begin operations in 2009.
The value of MOX fuel for export markets
France and Areva are already in the business of exporting MOX fuel to an energy hungry nation. Other nations that are just starting their nuclear programs like Turkey, and countries that have deep maturity with the technology, like Canada, both know the energy value of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. They told the U.S. during discussions about GNEP, and global nuclear fuel management, to forget getting any of their spent nuclear fuel for the cartel. It is far too valuable for future export to let an international consortium control its market. While the IAEA and state regulatory agencies will have oversight roles to insure safety, these countries, and others, don't want regulatory agencies nor an OPEC type consortium, allocating nuclear fuel materials for sale. The Nuclear Suppliers Group will eventually have to address this issue. It will be a tough one.
In the U.S. the Nuclear Regulatory Commission took notice. In a speech to an industry conference on June 17 of this year, Chairman Dale Klein said the agency is currently working on a safety evaluation report for the South Carolina MOX fuel plant and will publish it in December 2010.
In the next few decades MOX fuel could become one of the world's most valuable energy sources and countries that want to boost their generation of electricity from nuclear power will likely rely on it to do so. The export value of MOX fuel is quite simply remarkable. It has so much potential you have to wonder why the U.S. is even still talking about Yucca Mountain.
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