May 11, 2004

Got MOX?

Shikoku Electric Co.'s Ikata No. 3 reactor is likely to become the third facility in Japan to go "pluthermal" - to use MOX, or mixed-oxide, fuel for power generation. From the Asahi Shimbun:
Shikoku Electric Power Company...Monday informed the Ehime prefectural government of its plans to burn MOX nuclear fuel there by fiscal 2010.

Pluthermal power is controversial because it uses plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel, or MOX. Under this method, plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel is burned in reactors originally designed for uranium fuel. Pluthermal power is key to the nation's nuclear-fuel recycling program.

Critics warn the pluthermal method carries more health and safety risks to reactors originally designed to burn only uranium fuel. Shikoku Electric Power's plan follows those of Kansai Electric Power Co. and Kyushu Electric Power Co. Kansai Electric Power got the green light from the Fukui prefectural governor in March for its plan to burn MOX at its Takahama nuclear power plant. Kyushu Electric Power in late April notified the Saga prefectural government and the town of Genkai that it plans to burn MOX as early as 2009 at one of its reactors there.

Under Shikoku Electric Power's plan, no more than 16 of the 157 uranium-fuel elements in what are called fuel bundles-groups of fuel elements burned in a reactor-will initially be replaced with MOX at the No. 3 reactor in Ikata. The number of MOX elements will eventually be increased to about one-fourth of the bundle, with the maximum set at 40.
Greenaction-Japan is a organization which opposes the use of "pluthermal" (a Japanese term combining the words "plutonium" and "thermal") power, citing increased safety concerns:
Over the last several years the government and electric utilities have argued that the pluthermal program is a method of recycling precious resources. They claim that it is in Japan's best interest to extract the uranium and plutonium contained in spent nuclear fuel rather than directly disposing of it as some countries do. The argument used is that Japan is an energy poor country which needs to conserve uranium resources and use plutonium for energy security purposes.

Recently promoters of the pluthermal program have begun to argue that the program is also necessary in order to reduce the amount of surplus plutonium accumulated as a result of overseas reprocessing. Since mid- 2001, the Japanese government and electric utilities have put forward yet another argument for the pluthermal program. They claim that without the pluthermal program Japanese nuclear power plants would be unable to continue to produce power...The use of MOX fuel increases the risk and severity of a nuclear accident. When using MOX fuel, the control rods' capacity to function is reduced and power output is less stable and harder to control.
The NRC has a quarterly publication called the MOX: Mixed Oxide Fuels Newsletter, "published quarterly to highlight recent news and events associated with the NRC's licensing of a mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility." The lastest March 2004 issue [PDF file] among other things, talks about the
...October 2003...DOE fil[ing of] an application for license to export up to 140 kilograms of plutonium dioxide to the Cadarache and MELOX MOX fuel fabrication facilities in France. The plutonium would be used to fabricate four MOX fuellead test assemblies, which would be returned to the U.S. for proposed MOX fuel qualification tests in the Catawba Nuclear Power Station. [a two-unit power plant located on Lake Wylie in York County, S.C.]
MOX is (pardon the pun) a highly-charged topic in the United States as well, as the anti-mixed-oxide site Nix-MOX clearly demonstrates with its "Top 10 Reasons to Oppose the Use of MOX":
"MOX IS A BAD IDEA!! MOX infrastructure supplies all the pieces needed for making plutonium a desirable commodity, while it claims to dispose of it. MOX legitimizes the production of plutonium by foreign countries, and creates a market for something that could used in a weapon of mass destruction. Plutonium is dangerous and should be kept out of our economy and out of our commercial reactors."

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