At least 438 shipments of plutonium-enriched fuel could be shipped over the road from South Carolina to Soddy-Daisy or Athens, Ala., if the U.S. Department of Energy goes through with plans to use abandoned nuclear warheads to help power TVA plants.

During a public hearing Thursday night in the Chattanooga Convention Center, government supporters and environmental critics of the weapons-to-fuel proposal sparred over the risk of using weapons-grade plutonium as nuclear fuel.

The Energy Department is considering a plan to convert 13 metric tons of plutonium from abandoned nuclear weapons to produce a mixed-oxide fuel - called MOX - at its Savannah River site. The fuel produced from the warheads now stored in Texas and other Western states would be shipped to Savannah River, converted into nuclear fuel, then transported to either TVA's Sequoyah or Browns Ferry nuclear plants by 2018.

But some aren't so keen on the idea.

"Plutonium fuel requires transportation of weapons-grade plutonium and fuel across thousands of miles of open country, making transport vulnerable to terrorist attacks and theft," said Louis Zeller, science director for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.

Ed Lyman, a senior staff scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the risk of shipping mixed-oxide fuel was enhanced last year when nuclear plant security rules were lessened.

But DOE and TVA officials insist that, once the mixed-oxide fuel is fabricated at Savannah River, the fuel assemblies safely can be transported by specially licensed shippers, just as dozens of spent fuel and other radioactive shipments now are made across the country.

DOE began building the $5 billion fuel fabrication plant at Savannah River in August 2007 and is scheduled to complete the plant by 2016.

"We're not going to go forward with this plan unless it is safe and helps TVA to save money," said T.A. Keys, director of nuclear fuel supply for TVA.

TVA already helps recycle surplus weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium for use as fuel in nuclear power plants through the Blended Low Enriched Uranium project. Using such fuel at TVA's Browns Ferry plant has reduced TVA's nuclear fuel costs by nearly 25 percent, Keys said.

Based upon the success of that program, TVA signed an agreement last year to work with the Department of Energy on burning mixed-oxide fuel made from weapons-grade plutonium, rather than just uranium from the weapons program.

Duke Power Co., based in Charlotte, N.C., conducted tests for the DOE of the mixed-oxide fuel at its Catawba Nuclear Plant until it canceled the arrangement at the end of 2008. The mixed-oxide fuel assemblies made in France for the tests weren't used beyond a second refueling outage because of an unexpectedly large expansion of the fuel assemblies during the testing.

Jack Bailey, a TVA vice president for nuclear development, said the problems at the Catawba plant involved the manufacture of the guide tubes, not the fuel.

"This is not that much different from what we do now, and we do think it is our role to look at this option to see if it is the right thing for the country and the right thing for our ratepayers," Bailey said.

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Article: DOE plans hearings on mixed oxide fuel use at TVA nuclear plants