Hearing set on MOX use in TVA plants

photo Sequoyah Nuclear Plant is located near Soddy-Daisy.


What: Public hearing on a draft environmental impact statement about a plan to use MOX, a blend of plutonium from surplus nuclear weapons and uranium, to fuel TVA's Sequoyah and Browns Ferry nuclear reactorsWhen: Tuesday from 5:30 to 8 p.m.Where: Chattanooga Convention Center, 1150 Carter St.For more information visit this site.Source: Department of Energy

Local residents will have an opportunity Tuesday to tell federal officials what they think about using MOX fuel in TVA nuclear plants in Soddy-Daisy and in Athens, Ala.

MOX, short for mixed oxide fuel, is a blend of plutonium from surplus nuclear weapons and uranium. It is untried in the United States, save for a two-cycle test of a similar blend of fuel at Duke Energy's Catawba Nuclear Plant in South Carolina.

U.S. reactors traditionally run on uranium, but advocates of the plan say it will recycle plutonium into forms that can never again be readily used in nuclear weapons.

Critics say MOX, a radioactively hotter fuel blend, makes reactors harder to control and is a taxpayer boondoggle.

"The use of this experimental fuel in TVA's aging reactors could have negative safety reactions," said Tom Clements, the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability's nonproliferation policy director.

MOX was being used in one of the Fukushima reactors that melted down in March 2011 after an earthquake and tsunami, but the "lessons learned" from that event have not yet been determined publicly, Clements said.

The fuel blend is intended to help the United States fulfill a 2000 treaty with Russia to dismantle warheads and dispose of at least 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium.

The Tennessee Valley Authority tentatively has agreed to work with the Department of Energy to try out MOX if it meets three criteria: It is operationally and environmentally safe; economically beneficial to TVA customers; and licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, TVA spokesman Ray Golden said in July.

He said the utility's timetable for introducing MOX into the five reactors at Sequoyah and Browns Ferry is 2018.

Tuesday's public hearing, scheduled by the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, will begin at 5:30 p.m. with an open house hour at the Chattanooga Convention Center. During this hour, the public may view informational materials.

At 6:30 p.m., DOE will give a presentation on the draft supplemental environment impact statement, which it prepared with TVA.

Afterward, participants may comment on the document. The comments will be recorded by a court reporter. The hearing is scheduled to end at 8 p.m.

TVA directors tabled a decision on MOX use in April 2011, saying they would wait to see how it behaved during the Japan disaster.

Golden said a different blend of MOX made from spent nuclear fuel and fresh uranium has been used in Europe for years, but not in the U.S.

Duke abandoned its trial of a MOX blend at Catawba two-thirds of the way through the planned test. In early documents, Duke reported abnormal performance. Later, Duke officials said they would not resume the test because they had amassed all the technical information needed.

At the August TVA board meeting, Ivan Maldonado, a University of Tennessee professor of nuclear engineering and a representative of the American Nuclear Society, urged the board to approve MOX use.

TVA appears to be the only commercial utility indicating an interest in using the blended fuel. It will be produced at the $4.86 billion MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility, now in its fifth year of construction in Aiken, S.C.

The plant is being built by Shaw Areva MOX Services LLC. The French-owned Areva also is the major contractor at TVA's stalled Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Hollywood, Ala.

TVA began discussing the possibility of using MOX at Sequoyah and Browns Ferry in 2009 and had public meetings on the idea in 2010.

At a meeting in Chattanooga, residents were told that at least 438 shipments of plutonium-enriched fuel could be shipped over the road from South Carolina to Soddy-Daisy or to Athens, Ala.

NRC spokesman Dave McIntyre has said TVA must apply for license amendments at Sequoyah and Browns Ferry to use the MOX fuel.

Both he and Golden said those applications have not yet been made.

Contact staff writer Pam Sohn at 423-757-6346 or psohn@timesfreepress.com.