Plutonium Bomb Fuel in the Tennessee Valley? Voice Your Concerns

This blog was written by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | September 13, 2010 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is considering a partnership with the Department of Energy (DOE) to use plutonium bomb fuel in TVA’s Sequoyah and Browns Ferry nuclear reactors. The public is invited to comment on this proposal by September 17, 2010. Asking “Is this a good idea?” is a logical start. And TVA has to look no further than a neighboring utility, Duke Energy, which was the first American company to test plutonium bomb fuel in its commercial nuclear reactors to learn the answer. Before the tests were even completed, Duke withdrew from the program due to a number of serious concerns, including the unanticipated and dangerous growth of the plutonium fuel rods inside its Catawba Unit 1 nuclear reactor in South Carolina.

In spite of these failed tests, DOE is still pursuing this dangerous plan and have found a possibly interested partner in TVA. The obvious question is, “If it’s not good enough for Duke, why is it good enough for TVA?”

The idea to use plutonium bomb fuel in commercial reactors stems from international nuclear nonproliferation agreements with Russia. But the idea is deeply flawed as plutonium bomb fuel (also known as “mixed oxide fuel” or “MOX”) actually threatens nuclear proliferation goals – not advances them. Using surplus weapons-grade plutonium to produce nuclear reactor fuel still poses a weapons risk. There is no guarantee that plutonium will not be put back into a bomb, and here at home we cannot be certain that terrorists will not get their hands on this dangerous plutonium fuel. The Union of Concerned Scientists examines the weapons risk in detail. This is certainly a troubling mission for TVA to engage in.

We believe that surplus plutonium should be treated as a waste, not a commodity. Read our comments at a recent public meeting held in Chattanooga. Therefore the best method currently for managing surplus weapons grade plutonium is called vitrification, or immobilization, which involves encasing the plutonium in glass that contains high level radioactive waste. This makes the plutonium virtually inaccessible. Attempts to separate the plutonium from the extremely radioactive glass would essentially be lethal. Vitrification has been well tested and the estimated cost of this form of disposal is around $1.5 billion.

The alternative method that DOE insists on pursuing is the conversion of surplus plutonium into plutonium bomb fuel for use in commercial nuclear reactors. This method would cost more than twice as much as vitrification with costs estimates of $3.2 billion and is incredibly polluting.

A key piece to the DOE’s plan is the construction and operation of a multi-billion dollar facility that would produce the plutonium bomb fuel at the massive Savannah River Site (SRS) nuclear weapons complex in South Carolina. If the plutonium bomb fuel plant ever got up and running, which is a very big “if,” the new plutonium bomb fuel would then be shipped to TVA reactors to produce electricity. Read about problems at the facility from BREDL and Nuclear Watch South.

The many shortcomings of this plan are hard to overlook. First, if plutonium bomb fuel is not good enough for Duke, why is it good enough for TVA? Besides the fact that the bomb fuel actually grew in size and may have put Duke’s reactor in danger, Duke was also concerned about the reliability of this fuel for commercial power generation.

Additionally, in order to make this misguided proposal work, the new plutonium bomb fuel factory at SRS would have to get up and running, which has so far not happened, and it would need to reliably produce the fuel, which seems unlikely. TVA might not be able to rely on a steady supply of plutonium bomb fuel for use at its reactors, which could put the reliability of TVA’s nuclear generation at risk. The Sequoyah and Browns Ferry plants (in Tennessee and Alabama respectively) have a capacity of 5,760 MW or about 17% of TVA’s total capacity.

Since plutonium bomb fuel has not been well tested, there is little known about the dangers this program poses for people and the environment. The DOE and TVA need to explain how using plutonium bomb fuel will affect energy prices, outage times, maintenance costs and other important factors.

A few thing that are clear. It is clear that too much reliance on new nuclear fuels will distract TVA from the progress it has made towards more renewables and efficiency measures. It is clear that plutonium bomb fuel creates more heat than typical uranium fuel. That is certainly a bad thing for the Tennessee River that is already overheated. Browns Ferry was recently operating at only half capacity because the Tennessee River couldn’t handle any more hot water discharges from the plant. With already overheated river water, it is important to know how TVA will address this problem if they use plutonium bomb fuel.

There are too many reasons for TVA to reject this unreasonable plan. If TVA decides to move forward, however, we are all responsible for telling the DOE, the TVA board and our elected officials that the Tennessee Valley has been America’s laboratory for long enough–testing this dangerous plutonium bomb fuel in our communities is simply too much to accept. Please make sure to comment on this proposal by September 17, 2010.

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