A rapid-fire exchange of press releases this week Friday, Nov 13 made short order of a claim [press release] by Friends of the Earth (FOE) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) that the end of testing of MOX fuel in a Duke Power reactor is a “huge setback” to the program.
Identical letters sent Nov 10 by Tom Clements, representing both two green organizations, to Energy Sec. Steven Chu and NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko claimed that a decision by Duke not to reload test bundles of MOX fuel at the Catawba reactor represents a “failure to demonstrate” the safety of the fuel in a conventional light water reactor.
The letter called the situation “an aborted test” and claimed that as a result the MOX fuel is unsafe for use in civilian nuclear reactors. The remainder of the letter is incendiary with claims that the MOX fuel program should not proceed as a result of the “decision” by Duke Energy.
This is one of those stories that pretty much writes itself, but it is still worth walking you through the high points. It is not the first time these groups have promoted a rush to judgment about MOX fuel nor is it likely to be the last.
Duke Energy says ‘no so fast’
The first shot across the bow in response to the slime attack by the two green groups comes from Duke Energy. According to a media report in the Charleston Regional Business Journal Nov 13, Duke Power issued a statement that the decision not to reload the MOX fuel has nothing to do with success or failure of the testing program.
Instead, the utility said the fuel has been sent to Oak Ridge for testing and that the remainder of the fuel outage for the Catawba reactor is on schedule. Duke Energy spokesperson Rita Sipe told the Journal the evaluation of the fuel at a lab in Tennessee is part of the project.
“For us nothing has really changed. The technical evaluation of the fuel rods was part of the lead assembly program. We have expressed interest in a new proposal [for use of MOX fuel] and we are still supportive of the program”
According to the Journal, Sipe acknowledged that Duke’s contract with Shaw Areva MOX Services to conduct the tests lapsed last December, but she said the utility has sent the company a letter of intent to continue the relationship.
DOE answers the charges
The second response came from DOE’s NNSA office, which arranged the MOX fuel test, and which is building a $4.8 billion MOX fuel manufacturing facility in South Carolina. It issued a strong statement refuting the claim by the two anti-nuclear groups.
NNSA spokesperson Jennifer Wagner said in an email to this blog . . .
“The news release issued today by Friends of the Earth is inaccurate and draws incorrect conclusions about the performance of the MOX lead test assemblies.”
- The FOE press release is incorrect that three cycles of irradiation of Lead Test Assemblies are essential to license the use of MOX fuel in reactors. Irradiation of the MOX lead test assemblies (LTAs) for two 18-month cycles was successfully completed as required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. After a post-irradiation examination of five rods from the LTAs is completed next year, sufficient data will exist from the two cycles of irradiation to demonstrate that MOX fuel performs satisfactorily.
- The removal of the Lead Test Assemblies from the Catawba 1 Reactor after two cycles was not related to the fact that the fuel was MOX. As explained when the LTAs were removed, the LTAs had experienced assembly growth and rod bow slightly in excess of predictions. This had nothing to do with the fact that it was MOX fuel; the same phenomenon has been observed in many uranium assemblies of the same physical design.
In addition, she said, the Department of Energy has evaluated numerous approaches for disposing of surplus weapon-grade plutonium and, "simply put, there is no, ‘cheaper, safer and faster alternative. This critical project also is important for the Southeastern region of the United States, where it will create jobs and stimulate the local economy.”
The question has to be asked, if anti-nuclear groups don' want the weapons' plutonium used on new nuclear fuel in civilian reactors that will keep the lights on, what is their plan? Their letter doesn't offer one.
What’s wrong with this picture?
The problem here is that the two environmental groups went all in, as they say in poker, in an effort to derail the MOX fuel program. They made false claims about the MOX test to the top government officials. This isn't dialog over honest differences.
The problem for FOE and UCS is that Chu and Jaczko are smart guys and can see through this smokescreen. Chu earned a Nobel Price for his science accomplishments so this is not someone you want to blow spoke at. What kind of significance will be attached to the next letter the two groups send to the government?
There is another way to look at these distortions by the Friends of the Earth and the Union of Concern Scientists. They are no different than conspiracy theories of a decade ago that “black helicopters” are being used by the government to harass ordinary citizens.
The problem with conspiracy theories is that once they are out into the mainstream, they have no mass, and like neutrinos pass through everything, including some news media editor’s brains, without being affected by logic, reason, or analysis. This is not the case with the Charlotte Business Journal which did a good job of capturing Duke Energy's response. Whew.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Even more startling, the blunt tactics of the two groups ignore the fact that the MOX fuel program is designed to recycle plutonium from decommissioned nuclear weapons. It takes nuclear bomb material out of the weapons complex forever. It is crucial to the mutual agreement with Russia to reduce the number of nuclear weapons we still have pointing at each other left over from the Cold War.
One would think that an anti-nuclear group like the Union of Concerned Scientists would support this program. Apparently, in the upside down world of green politics, they do not. So, for the record, here is the rationale. NNSA Principal Assistant Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Ken Baker said last July . . .
“By disposing of surplus weapons plutonium in a transparent and irreversible manner, the United States is demonstrating our commitment to meeting our nuclear nonproliferation commitments. The MOX program is an important component of our nuclear security agenda that also holds the promise of cheaper nuclear reactor fuel for consumers.”
Over at Nuclear Street, Duncan Williams points out that the Savannah River Site is not reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from civilian nuclear reactors.
“The Savannah River Site’s process will focus on extracting “weapons-grade” plutonium. Not only is weapons-grade plutonium of a higher purity than reactor-grade plutonium, but the plutonium coming from spent nuclear fuel includes many other impurities from fission products as a result of being irradiated for years inside a nuclear reactor.”
TVA letter of intent leads the way
It is also noteworthy that in addition to Duke Energy, TVA has signed a letter of intent with Shaw Areva MOX Services to negotiate a contract to receive MOX fuel. Last July NNSA said in a statement the letter of intent signed by the Tennessee Valley Authority and MOX Services “is an important step forward for a critical nuclear nonproliferation objective.”
The nonbinding letter of intent signed by MOX Services and TVA came one week after President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a joint statement on nuclear cooperation that reaffirmed their commitment to dispose of 34 metric tons each of weapons-grade plutonium in the United States and Russia.
TVA is evaluating the use of MOX fuel in its Sequoyah Units 1 and 2, its Browns Ferry Units 1, 2, and 3, as well as future reactors.
NNSA said in a statement that “following further evaluation, TVA and MOX Services intend to enter contract negotiations that could result in the execution of an agreement in the summer of 2010 for irradiation of MOX fuel in two or more reactors.”
According to current schedules, the MOX facility will begin producing fuel in 2016. In addition to TVA, there are three other utilities interested in irradiating MOX fuel.
Something you can do – no more fish stories
One of the things that makes this story so amazing is that Friends of the Earth thought Sec. Chu and Chairman Jaczko would buy their claim hook, line, and sinker. It’s really just a fish story, and there is something you can do about it.
Friends of the Earth has an office in Washington, DC. If you feel that green groups shouldn’t be going around telling fish stories, send them a can of fish as a protest. Be nice. Choose a clean can of tuna or sardines. Include a brief note explaining why you are sending them the canned fish. You can keep it simple and use a magic marker to scrawl on the can “no more fish stories." That will make the point. Here is their address.
Friends of the Earth
1717 Massachusetts Avenue, Suite 600
Washington, DC 20036
Prior coverage about MOX fuel on this blog
- 11/10/09 Update on MOX fuel in Japan, UK, and US
- 07/18/09 Shaw Areva in MOX fuel negotiations with TVA
- 08/10/08 The future of MOX fuel
- 05/25/08 Areva signs contract for MOX fuel at SRS
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