WILLIAM TUCKER: MOX on the Witness Tuesday Stand in Chattanooga

By William Tucker

If you should happen to be near Chattanooga on Tuesday, be sure to stop in at the Tennessee Valley Authority hearings on MOX fuel at the Chattanooga Convention Center, 1150 Carter Street to say a good word about plutonium reprocessing.  It’s going to have a big impact on the future of nuclear energy.

There’s a lot at stake and nuclear opponents know it.  Areva is nearing completion of its $5 billion Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where it will be reprocessing 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium left over from the Cold War Era.  The project comes from a 1999 deal struck by the Clinton Administration whereby both we and the Russians would each recycle 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium as a step toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons.  The Russians are fulfilling their end of the bargain.  Whether we will do our may depend on what happens in Chattanooga this week.  

The problem is that anti-nuclear groups are trying to block reprocessing, fearing it might work.  That would leave them without their favorite tune about nuclear, “What Are You Going to Do with the Waste?”  You might think anyone concerned with weapons proliferation would be dancing in the streets at the idea of ridding the world of 34 tons of plutonium.  But no, anti-nuclear groups are taking the long view.  They want to block reprocessing, knowing that if a lot of weapons-grade plutonium is left sitting around, people will get discouraged about nuclear technology and want to give it up altogether.  That will be the real agenda in Chattanooga tomorrow.  

Anti-nuclear groups have been trying to halt the Savannah River project for years. They haven’t succeeded and so they have gone on to the next best thing – trying to prevent any reactors around the country from buying fuel form the MOX plant.  When the press found in March 2011 that Hanford was considering buying fuel from South Carolina, for instance, it was because nuclear opponents broke the story, giving it their own spin.  As the Seattle Times reported:  “Officials at the Columbia Generating Station, on the Hanford nuclear reservation, have been quietly discussing the use of so-called mox fuel for at least two years — but had hoped to keep the fact out of the news.”  As soon as their deliberations made the papers, opponents were able to shout it down.  [http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2014539881_plutonium19m.html

Their biggest triumph, however, was a front-page story in The New York Times on April 10, 2011 entitled “New Doubts About Turning Plutonium Into Fuel.” The “doubts” turned out to be those of the Edward Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.  As the Times reported:  

Eleven years after the government awarded a construction contract, the cost of the project has soared to nearly $5 billion.  The vast concrete and steel structure is a half-finished hulk, and the government has yet to find a single customer, despite offers of lucrative subsidies. . . [C]ritics say there is an increasing likelihood that the South Carolina project will fail to go forward and will become what a leading opponent, Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, calls a `plant to nowhere.’  

Even at that time, the TVA was singled out as perhaps the best hope for completing the nuclear fuel cycle: 

The most likely customer, the Tennessee Valley Authority, has been in discussions with the federal Department of Energy about using mox to replace a third of the regular uranium fuel in several reactors — a far greater concentration than at the stricken Japanese reactor, Fukushima Daiichi’s Unit No. 3, where 6 percent of the core is made out of mox. But the T.V.A. now says it will delay any decision until officials can see how the mox performed at Fukushima Daiichi, including how hot the fuel became and how badly it was damaged.

Those evaluations are now apparently complete and the TVA is preparing to move ahead.  Their opponents will be ready.  Greenpeace has already opened an office in Chattanooga and has had “nuclear zombies” roaming the streets in preparation for Tuesday’s hearing.  

One issue that may come up at the hearings will be the attempt to envelop the whole project in scandal.  The Times took a crack at this in the 2011 story:  

A cheaper alternative, encasing [the plutonium] in glass, was canceled in 2002 by President George W. Bush’s administration. The energy secretary at the time, Spencer Abraham, is now the non-executive chairman of the American arm of Areva, a French company that is the world’s largest mox producer and is primarily responsible for building the South Carolina plant.

The implication, of course, was that vitrification would have been far preferable but Secretary Abraham managed to prevent it, to Areva’s advantage – and then landed a job as a reward.  I had just finished co-writing a book with Secretary Abraham (Lights Out!: Ten Myths About (and Real Solutions to) America's Energy Crisis) and so I called him up and asked him what had happened.  Here is what he told me:

 “When the Clinton Administration first struck the deal with the Russians in 1999, the hope was to reprocess all our plutonium into MOX.  But our nuclear scientists came back and reported that nine tons of our plutonium was contaminated and could not be recycled.  So instead the Clinton Administration agreed to reprocess the good 25 tons and vitrify the remaining nine.  The Russians, however, were wary of vitrification.  Their scientists believed the process could be reversed and somebody could eventually recover the plutonium.  They had developed reprocessing and decided to recycle all 34 tons.  The deal was closed in 1999.  Since Areva, the French nuclear giant, was the only Western corporation that could do the technology, they got the contract to build the Savannah plant.   

“All this happened long before I was appointed President Bush's new Energy Secretary in 2001.  By the time I got in, however, the scientists had come back and said they had developed a way of reprocessing nine tons of contaminated plutonium after all.  So it became a question of whether to reprocess 25 tons and vitrify the other 9 or reprocess it all.  We figured it would be too expensive to do both, since we'd have to build two different facilities.  The Russians were still very set on reprocessing so we decided in order not to jeopardize the agreement, let’s go ahead and reprocess it all.  That’s why we dropped the vitrifying part."  

Abraham did take a job with Areva a year after leaving his Secretary’s job in 2005, but it was done in complete accordance with federal law.  And that’s the sum and substance of the scandal hatched out of the brains of the Union of Concerned Scientists.  

No, what really concerns the people who will be demonstrating in Chattanooga on Tuesday is that plutonium reprocessing might work.  Because if it can be done for weapons-grade material, then it can certainly be done for spent fuel rods as well.  And if spent fuel can be reprocessed, then there will be no arguing, “What are we going to do with the waste?”  

So be prepared to hear lots of stories this week about the horrors that will abound from putting MOX fuel in Tennessee Valley reactors.  Because if the TVA agrees to accept the material from South Carolina, the path to new nuclear construction will be open.  

  • JimHopf

    I don’t agree with the implication that reprocessing spent fuel rods would be as easy, or easier than “reprocessing” weapons-grade plutonium into MOX fuel. In the plutonium’s case, the hard work (separating it out) has already been done. Converting it into MOX is relativlely easy. In fact, it isn’t even really right to call it “reprocesssing”. The reprocessing has already been done.
    As for the anti-nukes (silly) position on the diposition of the plutonium, I always point out that one of the main arguments they give for opposing nuclear power is that there is no acceptable (sufficiently safe) way to bury long-lived elements like plutonium. And yet, all the sudddent it becomes acceptable if the subject is plutonium disposition; heaven forbid that plutonium should be destroyed while making emissions-free electricity. Any points they make about burial being somewhat cheaper are completely specious. Burial simply doesn’t solve the problem (i.e., make the plutonium disappear), burning it in a reactor does.