Monday, May 23, 2005

Another Non-proliferation Success Story

On May 5, Eric posted a note on "Megatons to Megawatts". I would like to call attention to an excellent project that complements "Megatons to Megawatts". It's the MOX Project. Whereas "Megatons to Megawatts" converts surplus weapons-grade uranium to fuel, the MOX Project converts surplus weapons-grade plutonium. It's a bilateral project, with both Russia and the U.S. having agreed to convert 34000 kg of weapons-grade plutonium into fuel.

Like most major projects, the MOX Project has encountered and overcome various obstacles. One of the most notable obstacles was that there is no facility in the U.S. that is licensed to fabricate MOX fuel. So that the project could continue to make progress until such a facility becomes available, plutonium dioxide was shipped to Cadarache in France, where it was mixed with uranium dioxide and formed into fuel pellets. The pellets, plus cladding and hardware from the U.S., were then sent to the Mélox facility, also in France, for assembly into (what else?) fuel assemblies. The assemblies were subsequently returned to the U.S.

MOX fuel has been used safely in over 30 European reactors. Where the MOX Project breaks new ground is in the details of the fuel isotopics. European MOX uses reactor-grade plutonium, which is recycled from used commercial reactor fuel. The MOX Project is using weapons-grade plutonium, which, like the uranium for "Megatons to Megawatts", is derived from actual weapons.

As I write this, Duke's Catawba 1 reactor is shut down for a historic refueling in which four MOX lead assemblies will be placed in the core. It is the first use of weapons-grade MOX in a commercial power reactor. Irradiation will destroy most of plutonium, and it will degrade the isotopics of the remaining plutonium so that it is no longer militarily useful. It's another non-proliferation success story.

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Kelly L. Taylor said...

So, Kevin, that means that if there were a operational reprocessing facility in the US, the materials that comprise mixed oxide fuel wouldn't need so many passport stamps and global mileage before making electricity? Sounds like an intriguing prospect for future energy independence and related national security, to me!

It's great to see you blogging here! I look forward to more of your contributions.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate Kevin McCoy's posting. In fact, by testifying as an expert witness in the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board hearing last summer, Kevin played a key role in obtaining the regulatory approval for using the four MOX fuel lead assemblies at Catawba.

As a caution, note that it took the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board more than 18 months to conclude that using four MOX fuel lead test assemblies at one nuclear power plant is OK. This despite the fact that dozens of MOX assemblies are routinely loaded into dozens of nuclear power plants in European countries. The opportunity for intervenors to cause mischief and unnecessary delay is far too high. I doubt seriously that we are going to achieve a "nuclear renaissance" until we drastically reform the regulatory process in this country.