DUKE POWERS PLAN TO USE BOMB-PLUTONIUM FUEL
CONCEALS HIDDEN DANGERS AND COSTS
Nuclear Control Institute
UPDATED: October 18, 2000
In 1998, Duke-Cogema-Stone & Webster (DCS), a consortium that includes
two Duke Energy affiliates (Duke Power and Duke Engineering and Services), signed
a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to fabricate some 33 tons
of plutonium recovered from dismantled nuclear warheads into so-called mixed
oxide (MOX) fuel for use in four Duke nuclear power reactors (McGuire 1 &
2, Catawba 1 & 2) and two Virginia Power reactors (North Anna 1 & 2). Plutonium is both a nuclear explosive and a
radioactive poison, requiring extraordinary security and safety measures. This past April, Virginia Power withdrew its
reactors from the MOX program, a move it described as purely a business decision.
the plutonium MOX fuel program as a patriotic initiative to dispose of nuclear-bomb
material that also would economically benefit the company.
Public-interest organizations nationwide strongly object to the use of
weapons plutonium as fuel in civilian reactors because it poses a significant
threat to public safety and the environment, and runs counter to 25 years of
U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy. The
proposed use of MOX fuel also presents Duke with hidden costs and financial
fuel may not receive regulatory approval. Federal
law requires that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) amend the licenses
of the Duke reactors to allow MOX use. However,
there is no guarantee that such licenses can be granted without severe restrictions
on reactor operation. There are significant
additional risks to the public associated with use of MOX fuel that will require
detailed regulatory scrutiny and may even exceed recently established NRC risk
guidelines. For instance, because MOX
fuel is inferior to uranium fuel at high burn-up levels (i.e., irradiating
or burning the fuel in a reactor for extended periods), NRC may impose limits
on MOX burn-up, and thereby require Duke to consume MOX fuel inefficiently compared
with the conventional uranium fuel Dukes reactors now use. Also, the use of MOX fuel, which can accelerate
aging of some plant components, may interfere with Dukes proposal to extend
the licenses of the Catawba and McGuire nuclear power plants for another twenty
years of operation.
fuel may end up costing Duke money, rather than generating fuel-cost savings.
MOX is several times more expensive than conventional uranium
fuel. The cost savings claimed by Duke, if realized,
would in fact be hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies built
into the MOX contract, paid for by federal taxes. But even these savings are only estimates,
based upon a complex reimbursement formula. DOE is requiring Duke to negotiate a cap
or ceiling on the total amount that Duke can be reimbursed for cost overruns.
Given that MOX fuel has never been used on a commercial scale in the
United States, and that DOEs projects historically end up costing several times
more than originally estimated, Dukes cost overruns might exceed the amount
DOE is willing to pay. In addition,
the already low costs of uranium fuel may drop even further, making MOX fuel
a money loser for Duke. Duke refuses
to tell its shareholders how much money it believes it will save, or what additional
costs it might incur, claiming that such information is sensitive and confidential. In fact, Duke cannot guarantee
any savings at all. In light of the
recent NRC report detailing the vulnerability of the McGuire plants ice-condenser
containment system, expensive backfits may be required.
fuel poses risks to efficient, economic operation of Duke nuclear plants. Congress and DOE have repeatedly stated that
the U.S. MOX fuel program will not be allowed to proceed unless Russia actually
disposes of its plutonium as well. But Russia has no money to do so, and will
rely solely on funding from the United States and other G-8 nations, none of
whom have pledged more than a fraction of the estimated $2.5 billion a Russian
MOX disposition program would cost. Such an unreliable plutonium-fuel plan could
jeopardize Dukes future competitiveness in a deregulated electricity market
because of costly disruptions in refueling schedules due to sudden, unpredictable
changes in Russian policies. Duke Power should not link the future of its nuclear-power
program to the fate of an unstable Russian government and economy.
fuel requires heavy security. DOE
insists that weapons-plutonium MOX fuel must receive the same degree of security
as that required for nuclear weapons. This will necessitate greater security expenses at Dukes reactors,
including more armed guards who are trained and authorized to use deadly force.
These measures could spark controversy for Duke in communities near the
MOX fuel poses a grave safety threat. Dr. Edwin Lyman, NCI Scientific Director,
conducted a MOX fuel safety study using the same computer codes employed by
DOE and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Dr. Lymans study concluded that, in the event
of a severe accident resulting in a large radioactive release, an average of
25% more people would die of cancer if the reactor were using a partial core
of plutonium-MOX fuel, as opposed to a full core of conventional uranium fuel.
DOE itself has concurred with many of Dr. Lymans findings.
Dr. Lyman also found that the impact of MOX fuel on certain reactor characteristics
might also increase the chance that such a severe accident would occur. DOE and Duke dismiss such accidents as extremely
improbable---but it must be remembered that the accidents that took place at
Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the Tokai nuclear-fuel plant in Japan last
September all had been similarly dismissed as highly unlikely or even impossible
fuel exposes Duke to potentially enormous future costs. The factories in which plutonium MOX fuel
is fabricated are susceptible to problems caused by hold up of significant
amounts of plutonium that get caught in process equipment rather than end up
in the final fuel product. The Plutonium Fuel Production Facility (PFPF), a MOX factory in
Japan, accumulated a hold-up of more than 70 kilograms of plutonium during
its first several years of operation. International nuclear regulators required Japan to clean out the
plant and upgrade its equipment at a total estimated cost of over $100 million.
When queried by the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) at a February meeting
with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff, Duke technical representatives
claimed they had never heard of this problem. The PFPF plant was based upon technology from Cogema, the same
French company that is designing the MOX plant which will fabricate fuel for
Dukes reactors. Duke could therefore
confront similar problems and expenses at the DCS consortiums MOX fuel-fabrication
MOX fuel has never been used commercially in the United States and is now generating
concerns and controversy in nations where it is being produced and used, Dukes
MOX fuel program will be subject to greater scrutiny and possibly a heavier
regulatory burden from NRC. For example,
recent revelations that British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL) cut costs by making
up fictional quality-control data for MOX fuel produced for Japanese, German
and Swiss utility customers has resulted in those customers canceling orders
for MOX fuel. This is likely to result
in NRC imposing costly quality-control requirements on MOX fuel fabricated for
MOX fuel using warhead plutonium is experimental
and untested. Duke claims that
many years of experience in European reactors shows MOX to be safe and effective.
But the plutonium in European MOX fuel was recovered from used nuclear-power
plant fuel, not from nuclear bombs. Warhead plutonium is of a different isotopic
composition, responds differently in reactors, and has never been tested on a commercial scale. DOE began test irradiation of a few MOX pellets in an experimental
reactor in early 1998, and will not have any results for years.
Warhead-plutonium MOX fuel remains an unproven technology with significant
risks associated with its use.
fuel violates U.S. nuclear non-proliferation efforts. Using plutonium MOX fuel in U.S. reactors
would contradict a 25-year U.S. nuclear non-proliferation initiative, begun
in the Ford and Carter administrations, to oppose plutonium fuel cycles at home
and abroad. The Duke MOX program would
encourage Europe and Japan to accelerate programs to recover hundreds of tons
of bomb-usable plutonium from the spent fuel of their nuclear reactors, creating
a grave proliferation and terrorism risk. Dukes
MOX program also would serve as an example to nations in volatile regions (including
Taiwan, South Korea, and Iran) to pursue plutonium fuel cycles, risking regional
instability by establishing a pathway to nuclear weapons.
fuel is not needed to dispose of plutonium from dismantled warheads. DOE is actually pursuing a dual-track approach
to warhead plutonium disposition, and plans to dispose of some 17 tons of plutonium
directly as waste by immobilizing it in steel cylinders filled with glassified,
highly radioactive waste, instead of turning it into MOX fuel.
Technical studies by the National Academy of Sciences and DOE conclude
that this immobilization technology is feasible, and could be utilized to dispose
of all surplus warhead plutonium in the United States and Russia. Such immobilization could be done at the Savannah
River Site utilizing existing high-level waste. There is no arms-control justification for
the riskier MOX approach, but it is supported by the nuclear industry as a way
to subsidize nuclear utilities at taxpayer expense.
Duke Power is jeopardizing the
future viability and economic competitiveness of its nuclear-power program in
exchange for possible future savings amounting to only a small fraction of its
nuclear-fuel costs. Participation in
the MOX program is an imprudent risk that Duke Power should not undertake.
Founded in 1981, the
Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), a nuclear non-proliferation research and
advocacy center, opposes the use of weapons plutonium in civilian
commerce. For further information about
the risks of Duke Powers MOX-fuel program, contact Steven Dolley, Nuclear
Control Institute (1000 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 410, Washington, DC, 20036;
phone 202-822-8444; firstname.lastname@example.org), or visit the NCI website at http://www.nci.org/nci-wpu.htm
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