TVA eyes use of old warheads in making fuel

Part of the America's nuclear arsenal could end up in the Sequoyah or Browns Ferry power plants under an agreement reached Thursday between the military and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

TVA has agreed to consider using weapon-grade plutonium from discarded nuclear bombs to help fuel its nuclear plants in the next decade.

The pact between TVA and the National Nuclear Security Administration, if completed, could help the military dispose of surplus nuclear weapons' waste while providing TVA a cheaper source of nuclear fuel for the Sequoyah plant near Soddy-Daisy and the Browns Ferry plant near Athens, Ala.

But critics said the approach inappropriately mixes military and civilian use of nuclear materials and creates an undue risk in the Tennessee Valley.

"This sends the wrong signal around the world and is an unnecessary risk for TVA," said Tom Clements, the Southeastern Nuclear Campaign Coordinator for Friends of the Earth opposed to such nuclear reprocessing technology.

TVA must still evaluate the use of the nuclear fuel made, in part, from nuclear warheads being discarded under arms control agreements by the U.S. government. The government is building a $5 billion mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel fabrication facility at the Department of Energy's Savannah River facility in South Carolina to convert weapons grade plutonium into MOX fuel for a civilian nuclear plant by 2017.

Ken Baker, a deputy administrator at the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, said the agreement with TVA "is an important step" in evaluating the use of MOX fuel "in a way that realizes the energy value of the material and advances our nuclear nonproliferation agenda."

Mixed-oxide fuel uses plutonium from bombs to replace part of the uranium-235 for the fissile material that generates the heat inside a nuclear reactor. The U.S. government is trying to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus weapon-grade plutonium withdrawn from the nuclear weapons program.

The MOX fuel from discarded bombs was previously tested for two refueling cycles at Duke Energy Co.'s Catawba Nuclear Plant. But Duke decided against competing the third and final refueling test and ended its agreement with the military in December 2008.

Steve Nesbit, Duke Energy's director of nuclear policy and support, said the utility got "lots of good operating data" from testing the plutonium. He said the program was stopped because of operational issues, not the fuel.

PDF: TVA agreement on MOX

For nearly a decade, TVA has burned fuel in its nuclear plants derived from U.S. surplus highly-enriched uranium originally targeted for nuclear bombs. TVA has used nearly 40 metric tons of surplus HEU by burning what is known as Blended Low-Enriched Uranium, or BLEU, which the Department of Energy makes by blending the low- and highly-enriched uranium.

TVA also has helped make tritium for the military at its Watts Bar plant near Spring City, Tenn.

But the proposed MOX fuel targeted for Sequoyah and Browns Ferry could be the first weapons-grade plutonium from a completed warhead ever put into nuclear power plant.

TVA spokesman Terry Johnson said TVA agreed to evaluate the use of MOX fuel as part of its government mission to serve the nation's defense needs. TVA helped produce munitions at its Muscle Shoals facility in the past and built some of its dams in the 1940s to supply energy for the development of the atomic bomb in Oak Ridge.