Seattle Times: Plutonium fuel could be used at Hanford power plant


From the Seattle Times – March 18, 2011

by Sandy Doughton

The operator of Washington’s only nuclear-power plant is considering
use of the plutonium fuel that has raised special concerns about one of
Japan’s damaged nuclear reactors.

Officials at the Columbia Generating Station, on the Hanford nuclear
reservation, have been quietly discussing the use of so-called mox fuel
for at least two years — but had hoped to keep the fact out of the news.

In the case of an accident, some experts say fuel made from highly
toxic plutonium can produce more dangerous fallout than standard uranium
fuel. Plutonium fuel is also harder to control, said nuclear scientist
Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental

The nuclear-watchdog group Heart of America Northwest sued the
plant’s operator this week, alleging that Energy Northwest improperly
withheld information about the proposal requested under the federal
Freedom of Information Act.

Spokeswoman Rochelle Olson said Energy Northwest and Pacific
Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have been discussing the use of
mox, or mixed oxide fuel, but don’t know if they will conduct a
feasibility study. “We have made no decisions,” she said. “The first
priority for us is the safe operation of our nuclear-generating

Use of plutonium reactor fuel could help draw down stockpiles from
weapons production and dismantling of nuclear warheads, Olson said. And
because the country is anxious to find an application for it, plutonium
fuel could be cheaper.

No U.S. nuclear plants currently use the plutonium fuel.

This week, Japan deployed firetrucks and helicopters to dump water on
the No. 3 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, where
stored fuel rods are overheating and containment structures may have
been damaged. The reactor is the only one in the complex to use mox

“The possibility of a very significant plutonium release and
subsequent plutonium contamination of areas around the plant … is a
very big issue at reactor 3,” said Dr. Ira Helfand, of Physicians for
Social Responsibility, an anti-nuclear group.

What it is

Even uranium fuel contains some plutonium, which is produced during
the fission process. Mox fuel, which is a mixture of uranium and
plutonium, contains a higher proportion of plutonium — between 5 and 9
percent, Makhijani said. Plutonium has a half life of 250,000 years.
Inhaling a few particles can cause lung cancer.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is building a
$4.8 billion plant to turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel at the
Department of Energy’s Savannah River site in South Carolina. But so
far, few utilities have expressed interest in using it.

Hanford’s nuclear experts are experienced in handling weapons-grade
material, Olson said. “It makes sense for us to study the technology to
see if it’s feasible.”

But officials wanted to keep their studies quiet. “I assume this info
will stay between PNNL and DOE NNSA,” said a December 2009 e-mail
released last year to the environmental group Friends of the Earth under
a public records request. “Just don’t want any unexpected press
releases about burning MOX fuel in (Columbia Generating Station).”

Other documents lay out a timeline starting in 2013 with
incorporation of a few plutonium fuel elements into the reactor core.
The elements would be tested for six years, followed by a phase-up to
full operations in 2025. Even then, mox fuel would only make up 30
percent of the reactor core.

Olson said the timeline was theoretical, and is already outdated. All
cost estimates were redacted from the released documents, triggering
this week’s legal challenge.

“Nasty stuff”

Some nuclear experts question whether plutonium fuel is significantly
more dangerous than uranium fuel. In an accident, it’s the easily
dispersed isotopes like radioactive iodine and cesium that account for
most of the health effects, Makhijani said. Plutonium is heavy and
wouldn’t be widely spread.

But its toxicity is so high that even small amounts can be dangerous.
“Plutonium is nasty stuff and you don’t want it in the environment,”
Makhijani said.

Olson pointed out that the 1,150-megawatt Columbia Generating Station has never experienced a radiation release.

Commissioned in 1984, the plant produces about 9 percent of
Washington’s electricity. Energy Northwest has applied for relicensing
by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. If granted, the new license would
be good until 2043.

Incorporating mox fuel would require a license modification, Olson said.

Because only a small amount of plutonium is left after the fuel is
burned, spent rods would not be a target for terrorists intent on making
weapons, she added.

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About Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.