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Mixing It up Over MOX

Mixed oxide or MOX fuel uses more than one oxide of fissile material. Uranium can be one, plutonium another. The United States wants to use 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium in commercial MOX fuel. No plant currently uses it though most could adapt to its particularities– more fuel rods are bundled together than in an uranium powered reactor, for example. Arizona’s Palo Verde plant can use MOX fuel without adaptation, though it has never done so. CANDU reactors (which do not operate in the United States) can also use MOX fuel as is.

But the first step is to fabricate the mixed oxide fuel. That will be the job of a facility the government is building at its Savannah River site in South Carolina. Construction on the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility began in 2006 and is about 60 percent complete – and will be completed if the government doesn’t pull the plug on it (this is on page 77).

Following a year-long review of the plutonium disposition program, the Budget provides funding to place the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina into cold-standby. NNSA is evaluating alternative plutonium disposition technologies to MOX that will achieve a safe and secure solution more quickly and cost effectively.

Sounds like Yucca Mountain all over again, doesn’t it? The Department of Energy has a reputation for abandoning large projects, but even leaving that aside, there’s very little justification for stopping the project.

NEI President and CEO Marv Fertel makes the case in a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz:

Construction of the MOX facility is 60 percent complete, employs 1,800 people directly and utilizes more than 4,000 American contractors and suppliers in 43 states. These contracts contribute millions of dollars in revenue to those states, as the enclosure shows in state-level detail. This project has achieved nearly 18 million safe work hours – an unprecedented achievement for any construction project of this kind. The MOX project has also supported the development of advanced U.S. technology for both national security and commercial purposes.

If this were a horrible project with a destructive agenda, it wouldn’t matter at all how many people are engaged in it. Shut it down by all means. The MOX facility does not qualify as a horrible project. Not only will it produce commercial fuel, it will also quell proliferation concerns regarding the plutonium.

NEI views the MOX project as an investment in the nation’s future. The facility, once operational, will operate for more than a decade to complete its original mission to transform 34 metric tons of U.S. weapons-grade plutonium into civilian nuclear fuel. During that time, additional missions for the facility will likely be found and may include the transformation of additional U.S. weapons-grade plutonium, a worthy nonproliferation and disarmament goal.

The MOX facility is not a boondoggle. It can be finished and will serve an unalloyed good. Now, killing a project in the President’s budget request does not mean it’s dead – Congress will weigh in during the appropriations process and could reject the idea wholly or in part. But one shouldn’t count on that, as NEI wisely hasn’t. It’s an important issue and worthy of a fuss – a good topic to write about to your Congressman, in fact, who probably isn’t flooded with comments about it.


Anonymous said…
How many US utilities have expressed willingness to use MOX fuel in their power reactors? Are there any buyers for the product?
The government owns its own commercial nuclear reactors (TVA). They should lead the way in using MOX.

Anonymous said…
Yes, utilities have signed expressions of interest but the OE after four years has not signed the terms of a contract that could be reviewed.
Anonymous said…
I am almost 100% sure that several US plants (certainly Catawba) have used some MOX fuel assemblies manufactured in France as part of a proof of concept for the MOX facility in South Carolina. So clearly using MOX in US plants is not impossible, though in the case of Catawba I think the results were not all that great if I recall correctly.
Anonymous said…
"Yes, utilities have signed expressions of interest..."

Any other than TVA?

"I am almost 100% sure that several US plants (certainly Catawba) have used some MOX fuel assemblies manufactured in France as part of a proof of concept for the MOX facility in South Carolina."

Not "several," just Catawba, and the irradiation was ended early when they experienced unexpected growth in the test assemblies.
Jaro said…
I’m no big fan of Areva’s MOX project at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, but I find it puzzling that the proponents arguing in favor of it never seem to point out problems with the alternatives: They only talk about noncompliance with the weapons plutonium disposition agreement with Russia.

Specifically, as noted by others previously, if the option of using MOX in LWRs is scrapped, along with the SRS plant, then one is left with the alternative of converting the WGPu to “spent fuel standard” by mixing it with LWR spent fuel waste – which implies building an LWR spent fuel processing plant.
If the DoE’s Moniz doesn’t already know that, how long will it take him to find out ? ….and then what ?

On the technical side, there seems to be very little information available about the design of the SRS plant.
A recent article included this interesting statement:
“The MOX facility is designed to remove impurities from plutonium feedstock obtained from nuclear weapon pits … to include about 300 separate process systems using approximately 23,000 instruments and 85 miles of process piping.”

….which provides a little hint of why the plant is so costly.
Presumably those “impurities” are primarily gallium added to stabilize the metal in weapons.
But 300 process systems ?! …that sounds crazy. Someone’s idea of a joke ?
Is there any more detailed info available somewhere ? Thnx
AREVAinc said…
More information about the MOX Project in this recent blog post Five Letters to the Obama Administration (and a Russian report) Raise Concerns about Stopping MOX Project---including utility customers' interest.
Anonymous said…
The immobilization alternative advocated by some does not require additional reprocessing of LWR spent fuel to produce high level waste to mix with the plutonium. HLW from US nuclear defense sites, which is destined to be vitrified anyway, would be mixed with the plutonium and glass matrix. Or some amount of strontium or other high-activity element could be added to the matrix as a radiation barrier. There's no need to reprocess spent fuel to immobilize weapons plutonium.
Anonymous said…
I see nothing in that post demonstrating utility interest in irradiating MOX, except a bald assertion that names no utilities.

TVA has signed an expression of interest. Duke irradiated a few test assemblies at Catawba but stopped the test early due to issues with fuel rod growth and they don't want to burn it. Who's stepping to the plate, after nearly two decades of pursuing the MOX option?
Jaro said…
Regarding "HLW from US nuclear defense sites, which is destined to be vitrified anyway, would be mixed with the plutonium and glass matrix."
This idea was rejected AFAIK because the plutonium remains as weapons grade, rather than the "LWR Spent Fuel Standard" agreed to, which turns weapons grade to reactor grade.
Anonymous said…
The so-called spent fuel standard, originally proposed by NAS in studies in the early 1990s and later adopted by DOE in its plutonium disposition record of decision, does NOT require isotopic conversion of plutonium from weapons to reactor grade.

Rather, as NAS defined it in a report in 2000, "the spent fuel standard holds that the final plutonium form produced by a disposition option should be approximately as resistant to acquisition, processing, and use in nuclear weapons as is the plutonium in typical spent fuel from once-through operation in a commercial light-water reactor."

NAS said that can be accomplished in a variety of ways, not necessarily involving isotopic transformation.
jaro said…
What NAS said and what the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA) with Russia said are two different things.

As noted in the reference cited in a previous comment,

“It is evident that the eventual repudiation by the American side of the previously agreed upon method of plutonium disposition will have an influence on the implementation of the PMDA Agreement … Immobilization does not guarantee full irreversibility since mixing plutonium with radioactive waste does not change its isotopic composition and does not exclude in principle the possibility of plutonium extraction from the mixture … A deviation from one of the basic provisions of the Agreement would hardly find a positive response from Russian experts who always asserted that a real weapon grade plutonium disposition is possible only through its irradiation in MOX fuel of civilian nuclear reactors thus assuring an irreversible withdrawal from weapon’s program.”

However, I am NOT interested in arguing about this: As I said in my first comment, what I want to know is how the heck did the SRS MOX plant get so expensive, with “300 process systems” ?
Is this the result of some ridiculous DoE/NRC requirements ?
Mark Flanagan said…
To Jaro (and anyone else interested): I wrote a story for NEI's news service about a House hearing with Energy Secretary Moniz. He talks about the MOX project at some length. See here:

Let me add, too, that MOX fuel is plausible because most reactors can use it. If the MOX facility is completed and if the fuel is commercially competitive (big ifs, I admit), then facilities will respond to that. But if the MOX facility looks dubious, plants will not contemplate the cost of the adaptation to use it. It has a certain chicken and egg quality to it, but it's also early days. MOX has proved plausible in Europe and there's no reason to believe that can't be true here. Moving forward is a good direction for a number of reasons - let's not forget its non-proliferation aspect - and it'd be a disappointment not to finish it.
Jaro said…
Thanks for the reference link Mark.
“In the case of the MOX facility, he said that NRC concerns caused major changes in the facility’s design. The original design was based on AREVA’s MOX facility in La Hague, France.”
OK, so this was another one of NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko’s insanities. Great. Congrats to Democratic leader Harry Reid.

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