More than 100 people crowded a room at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Tuesday to talk about using a largely untried fuel in local nuclear reactors to help keep plutonium out of the hands of terrorists.
And Department of Energy officials didn't miss the opportunity to start the meeting with a moment of silence for those who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But the meeting that followed was a lively exchange of opinions about the safety or danger of using MOX -- a mixed oxide fuel blend of plutonium from dismantled nuclear warheads.
DOE wants the Tennessee Valley Authority to help the United States fulfill a treaty made in 2000 with Russia to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium by consuming it as fuel in five nuclear reactors at its Sequoyah plant in Soddy-Daisy and its Browns Ferry plant in Athens, Ala.
TVA cooperated with DOE to complete an environmental impact statement on the proposal, but has not committed to being DOE's first and only customer.
Proponents of the proposal say the new fuel is a safe and smart way to use the surplus plutonium while rendering it useless to terrorists.
Critics say MOX is a radioactively hotter fuel blend and a taxpayer boondoggle that makes reactors harder to control.
On Tuesday, Howard Hall, a professor of nuclear security at the University of Tennessee, acknowledged the MOX fuel is hotter, but he prefers to term it "more reactive," and he said that does not necessarily make it harder to control in a reactor.
He said making and burning MOX "certainly will be more expensive" than using uranium, but it will not be as great as the overarching cost of surplus plutonium falling into the hands of terrorists.
"It's not really demilitarized now. It's just stored," he said.
He noted the U.S. share of "surplus" stored plutonium totals 34 metric tons -- the equivalent of about 17,000 nuclear weapons that would fit in 10 55-gallon drums.
Mick Mastilovic, TVA's program manager of nuclear fuel supply, said he does not expect the MOX fuel to cost more than the traditional uranium fuel burned by TVA.
Mastilovic and TVA spokesman Ray Golden said DOE will bear the cost of converting any TVA equipment to use the MOX fuel.
More than a dozen nuclear engineering students from Chattanooga State and the University of Tennessee took turns taking the podium and making a case for the use of MOX.
Nick Luciano, a student at UT, ticked off the options as he saw them.
"We can do nothing, or we can turn it into glass [the present method of demilitarizing plutonium for long-term storage], or we can turn it into power. That's a great use for it."
Steve Nesbit of Duke Energy spoke to the group about Duke's experiment with a plutonium MOX fuel blend several years ago -- the only such trial in the U.S.
Duke burned the fuel for two of three fuel cycles at the Catawba Nuclear Plant in South Carolina, and reported a "bowed growth" of the fuel rods.
But Nesbit told the audience at the hearing Tuesday that he did not attribute that to the MOX, but rather to a problem with the mechanical parts of the fuel rods. He said Duke declined to resume its trial of MOX for the third cycle because "issues arose in the business side of things." He indicated Duke didn't feel the supply of MOX would be reliable.
But Kathleen Ferris, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., said she doesn't have faith in TVA to use the fuel safely.
"It is pure folly to put plutonium in these nuclear plants," she said, ticking off the problems at Browns Ferry dating back to a fire there 37 years ago started by a worker checking for leaks with a candle.
Garry Morgan, of Scottsboro, Ala., said the proposal is nothing more than a money-maker for some in the nuclear industry.
"Your job ... is to protect and to provide services to the citizens," he told the government officials at the meeting. "None of your jobs include providing for the financial enrichment of multinational nuclear power construction corporation or the various contractors involved in the nuclear fuels processes."
The warhead plutonium will be made into MOX at the U.S. Department of Energy's Savannah River Site in South Carolina by Shaw Areva MOX Services LLC, which also is a TVA contractor.
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