Rockville, MD, March 9 --- Concerns raised by Nuclear Watch South about inadequate plans for plutonium control and accounting at the MOX plutonium fuel factory under construction at Savannah River Site (SRS) are the subject of a March 7-9 hearing before the Atomic Safety & Licensing Board (ASLB) at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Nuclear Watch South is one of three parties who have intervened to block the issuance of an operating license by the NRC to the MOX plutonium processing factory. Expert witness Dr. Edwin S. Lyman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, flagged three plutonium control and accounting concerns with serious implications for plutonium security that were accepted by the ASLB for a hearing after many rounds of argument and deliberation.
Dr. Lyman says, “The focus of our contentions about MOX Services’ plutonium accounting methods is to ensure that plutonium can’t be diverted from this factory for malevolent purposes without prompt detection. A primary goal of the plutonium disposition program is to reduce the risks of nuclear terrorism, but the plutonium accounting plan put forward by Shaw Areva MOX Services has major flaws that would actually increase this risk.”
Dr. Lyman's contentions concern the failure of applicant Shaw Areva MOX Services to adequately address material control and accounting (MC&A) for the sensitive fissile material weapons-grade plutonium, which it proposes to fabricate into a new type of nuclear reactor fuel called MOX. The ASLB panel of NRC administrative judges found the issues raised by Dr. Lyman so significant to public safety and national security, that they stated that if Nuclear Watch South had not met the tough standards for launching a public hearing, the ASLB would have had to raise the issues at the NRC itself to see that they are addressed before granting MOX Services a license. In this instance, the “public” hearing is closed to the press and to the public because of the sensitive nature of the issue.
In its April 1, 2011 order accepting the contentions for a hearing, the ASLB said that the “contentions raise significant public safety and national security issues." The order was written by Michael C. Farrar, Chairman and Nicholas G. Trikouros of the ASLB. Judge Lawrence G. McDade dissented from the majority view with respect to the question of whether Nuclear Watch South had met the timeliness criteria in raising the issues but underscored the importance of the concerns being raised by Dr. Lyman for the citizens groups saying, "The question of a serious safety inadequacy in the MOX fuel fabrication facility remains. And any question regarding the ability to meet these requirements can have serious consequences with respect to the possibility of loss or diversion of nuclear materials from the MOX facility." The whole board affirmed McDade’s statement in the April 2011 order.
The first day of hearings took place on March 7 and the final day is scheduled for Friday, March 9. Glenn Carroll, coordinator of Nuclear Watch South, was in attendance at NRC Headquarters in Maryland. Ms. Carroll said, “The ASLB is performing a great public service by bringing increased scrutiny to this huge enterprise which involves tons of plutonium, since only 15 pounds can be used to make a nuclear weapon like the one that destroyed Nagasaki in Japan. The judges’ questions are bringing a level of rigor and thoughtfulness that we haven’t seen from MOX Services,” she continued. “MOX Services is attempting to talk their way out of complying with very clear regulations and if we prevail in compelling their compliance, the whole world will be a whole lot safer.”
Nuclear Watch South has campaigned, in addition to the legal intervention opposing the license, to cut the $500 million per year budget for the MOX plutonium fuel factory citing that, besides being more than 10 years behind schedule and 400% over budget, there are no reactors in place to perform the necessary irradiation services to MOX fuel. Any reactors starting onto the MOX plutonium fuel path will have to undergo almost 10 years of testing and licensing which indicates that the MOX plutonium fuel factory, if finished, will languish for many years before starting plutonium fuel production.
Nuclear Watch South continues to support an alternative plutonium disposition option, plutonium immobilization, utilizing waste stocks remaining from the original production of the plutonium in reactors at the nation’s nuclear weapons reservations. A new Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on the plutonium disposition program is currently underway and may look again at the question of treating plutonium as waste. The plutonium disposition program began in 1994 as a joint U.S.-Russia program. Russia is no longer involved.
For more information contact: Dr. Edwin S. Lyman, Union of Concerned Scientists, 202-841-0181 | Glenn Carroll, Nuclear Watch South, 404-432-8727
ATLANTA, GA (4/1/11) Concerns about the adequacy of plutonium control and accounting measures at a nuclear fuel fabrication facility now under construction at a Department of Energy (DOE) site in South Carolina were accepted for hearing today by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB).
The issues were raised by Nuclear Watch South, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL) and Nuclear Information & Resource Service (NIRS) who have a legal intervention before the NRC opposing a license for a MOX plutonium fuel factory to operate at Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. The MOX factory would process up to 50 metric tons of the nation's surplus weapons-grade plutonium into MOX plutonium fuel for nuclear reactors.
Dr. Edwin S. Lyman, a Senior Scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC, assisted in the preparation of legal contentions with Diane Curran, DC-based public attorney and Harmon Curran partner, and filed the sensitive unclassified non-safeguards information (SUNSI) concerns about inadequate measures for control and accounting (MC&A) of weapons-grade plutonium on behalf of the environmental groups and their members.
This ruling about plutonium fuel is a great day for public health and national security which are threatened by a very dangerous nuclear project," says Glenn Carroll, coordinator of Nuclear Watch South. "It is frankly ridiculous that Shaw AREVA MOX Services would wait until this late in the game to show up empty-handed without effective plans to account for tons of weapons-grade plutonium! It only takes 15 pounds to fashion a crude nuclear weapons with plans from the internet."
"It is gratifying that the Board has concluded that the intervenors have raised issues of the highest safety significance,” said Dr. Lyman. “It makes no sense for taxpayers to spend billions of dollars on a MOX fuel program that will only increase the risk that terrorists can divert or steal weapon-usable plutonium for use in a crude nuclear weapon. Construction on the MOX plant needs to be halted until these fundamental security issues can be resolved."
Dr. Lyman's contentions concern the failure of applicant Shaw AREVA MOX Services (SHAMS) to adequately address material control and accounting (MC&A) for the sensitive nuclear fissile material weapons-grade plutonium. The panel of NRC administrative judges found the issues raised by Dr. Lyman so significant to public safety and national security, that they stated they would have had to raise the issues themselves to see that they are addressed before granting SHAMS a license had the environmental groups not met the tough standards for launching a public hearing.
"SHAMS has squandered billions of tax dollars in construction of an unfinished, unsafe design to remanufacture plutonium into MOX," Ms. Carroll says. "The ‘MOX boondoggle’ should have been suspended anyway since there aren't any reactors willing to go through MOX testing and loading. Now, more than ever, MOX should be suspended in light of the MOX plutonium reactor crumbling and spewing plutonium at Fukushima, Japan."
The MOX plutonium fuel factory at SRS proposes to utilize up to 50 metric tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium to produce an experimental reactor fuel called MOX. A nuclear bomb like the one at Nagasaki, Japan, requires only 15 pounds of plutonium. Plans for nuclear weapons are available on the internet therefore plutonium security is paramount to national, even global, security. The U.S. MOX plutonium program is already in disarray as the MOX factory design is still unfinished, MOX factory construction is more than 10 years behind schedule and is costing taxpayers $500 million per year. A test of weapons-grade MOX plutonium fuel assemblies failed in Duke Power's Catawba reactor in 2008 and Duke withdrew from the MOX program. DOE still does not have any other reactors lined up to use the proposed MOX plutonium fuel but is considering MOX use in Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry’s GE Mark I reactors in Alabama. Permission to use MOX plutonium fuel would require reactor licensees to undergo years of testing and licensing by the NRC. The Browns Ferry reactors are of the same design which failed in the nuclear disaster unfolding at Fukushima, Japan. Unit 3 at Fukushima was loaded with “reactor-grade” MOX in September 2010.
Nuclear Watch South and environmentalists continue to call for plutonium immobilization in the glassification process for 60-year-old inventories of high-level radioactive waste in underground storage tanks at SRS as the preferable alternative to MOX plutonium.
The ASLB's 4/1/11/order states: "We believe this [the concerns raised by Nuclear Watch South and others] so strongly that had we found that timeliness concerns do bar admission of these contentions, we would have joined the Dissent’s [Judge McDade, below] suggestion that the matter deserves sua sponte review under 10 C.F.R. § 2.340(a) and referred the matter to the Commission on that basis. In that regard, we agree in its entirety with the Dissent’s explanation that the new contentions raise significant public safety and national security issues." The order was written by Michael C. Farrar, Chairman and Nicholas G. Trikouros of the ASLB.
A dissenting opinion was written by Lawrence G. McDade in which he did not agree that the environmental groups had met the filing deadline, but strongly asserted the serious nature of the nuclear security issues that remain inadequately addressed. "The question of a serious safety inadequacy in the MOX fuel fabrication facility remains. And any question regarding the ability to meet these requirements can have serious consequences with respect to the possibility of loss or diversion of nuclear materials from the MOX facility," said Judge McDade in the 4/1/11 MOX Order.
For more information contact:
Glenn Carroll, Nuclear Watch South coordinator
404-378-4263, 404-432-8727 (cell)
Dr. Edwin S. Lyman, Union of Concerned Scientists senior scientist
202-331-5445, 202-841-0181 (cell)
ATLANTA (9/2/09) Failure to deal with waste from processing weapons-grade plutonium into MOX nuclear reactor fuel is holding up a public hearing about the controversial plutonium processing factory at Savannah River Site (SRS).
On August 31, 2009, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff which has the license for a MOX plutonium fuel factory at SRS under review sent a surprising letter to the NRC Atomic Safety & Licensing Board overseeing Nuclear Watch South's legal intervention opposing MOX. The NRC's letter reveals that problems with volatile MOX plutonium wastes remain unresolved and the public hearing sought by Nuclear Watch South, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and the Southeast office of Nuclear Information & Resource Service will not be held before 2010 or even later, whenever the waste problems are addressed.
In 2007, Nuclear Watch South along with BREDL and NIRS requested a hearing on the absence of MOX waste plans in Shaw AREVA MOX Services' application to possess plutonium and operate a plutonium fuel factory at the former nuclear weapons complex in South Carolina. The MOX factory, which is already under construction, would process 50 tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium into a new type of reactor fuel which mixes plutonium oxides with conventional uranium oxides, called MOX for short. Because the weapons material is intended for use in commercial nuclear reactors, the Department of Energy-sponsored project must obtain a license from the NRC which regulates commercial nuclear facilities.
"We are still waiting for SHAMS to prove they can handle the MOX waste," says Glenn Carroll, Nuclear Watch South coordinator. "We have thought all along that this is a most serious stumbling block in the problem-plagued MOX program."
At issue is SHAM's ability to handle extremely dangerous and volatile interactions between radioactivity and solvent acids in MOX waste which produce a poisonous and explosive state called "red oil." The NRC's letter supports contentions brought by Nuclear Watch South exposing the lack of nuclear waste planning by the DOE's MOX contractor SHAMS in its 2007 MOX licensing application.
Despite the $500 million per year in tax money being lavished on MOX factory construction, the final design remains only 75% complete. In addition to the critical waste issues raised by the citizen groups, there are outstanding issues on plutonium security and emergency planning.
"This latest admission by the NRC reveals that licensing the MOX plant is just a roll of the dice," says Tom Clements of Friends of the Earth SE nuclear campaign and who has worked to stop MOX with a coalition of international, regional and local groups since the program's inception in 1994.
Many other deep problems beset the MOX plutonium disposition project which is now 10 years behind schedule. SHAMS has been repeatedly cited by NRC with construction violations for using substandard rebar and concrete which not meet nuclear building standards, or even conventional standards.
The required MOX fuel assembly test failed at Duke Power's Catawba nuclear station in Rock Hill, SC. Afterwards, Duke Power declined to renew its contract to "burn" the MOX fuel proposed to be produced at the MOX factory. Even if a utility were to sign up to use its reactors for MOX, there is no source for additional trial MOX fuel to conduct the seven-year-long test required preceding MOX use in a commercial reactor.
"It is painful to watch precious tax money being poured into this dangerous dead-end project," says Ms. Carroll. "It would be so much more practical to convert the building to a plutonium immobilization factory and dedicate ourselves to protecting the plutonium forever by glassifying it in the old plutonium waste stored in the 60-year-old underground tanks!"
Year plutonium was discovered by Glenn Seaborg and others
Minimum amount of plutonium required for bomb
1 kilogram (2.2 pounds)
Amount of plutonium used in Nagasaki bomb
Average amount of plutonium used in modern atom bomb
Estimated amount of U.S. weapons-grade plutonium
85,000 kilograms (93.5 tons)
Estimated amount of Russian weapons-grade plutonium
160,000 kilograms (176 tons)
Hazards associated with plutonium
Radiation, fire, inhalation, ingestion, criticality, reactivity, decay
Length of time that
plutonium 239 (weapons-grade) remains hazardous
(Ten 24,000-year half-lives)
Form of plutonium most hazardous to life
Plutonium oxide powder
What happens to plutonium metal when exposed to air
Gradually turns to
plutonium oxide powder
Lethal amount of plutonium oxide powder (inhaled)
Lethal amount of plutonium oxide powder (ingested)
Amount of sugar substitute in average 1 gram package
Excerpted from Stop Plutonium Fuel: Plutonium Index, compiled by Don Moniak. Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, www.bredl.org