RICHLAND — Energy Northwest has been sued for the release of public records related to a proposal to use mixed oxide fuel containing plutonium in its nuclear power plant near Richland.
The issue has increased urgency because of the partial meltdown of a Japanese reactor using similar fuel, according to the lawsuit filed Thursday in Benton County Superior Court by Heart of America Northwest Research Center and Thomas Clements of South Carolina.
Energy Northwest has discussed the fuel option in its board meetings, which are open to the public, but has yet to take the initial step of signing an agreement for an 18-month feasibility study with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said Rochelle Olson, spokewoman for Energy Northwest. The study would be on paper only and would not involve use of the reactor.
The National Nuclear Security Administration is building a plant in Savannah River, S.C., intended to reduce the nation's surplus of weapons-grade plutonium by blending it into mixed oxide fuel for use in commercial plants.
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The lawsuit claims that mixed oxide, or MOX, fuel can cause a nuclear reaction that is more difficult to control, resulting in more radiation released in the case of a severe accident. It also points out that the Energy Northwest reactor, the Columbia Generating Station, has its pool for cooling used fuel above the reactor and outside the more robust containment around the reactor vessel.
There also is concern that MOX fuel for Energy Northwest could be fabricated at Hanford's 300 Area and would create radioactive waste, according to the lawsuit.
Information about possible use of MOX at the Energy Northwest reactor was requested more than a year ago and received several months later, but key portions of scores of records were blacked out, according to the lawsuit.
That included information on costs that would be incurred and funds requested from public entities such as the Department of Energy and PNNL, according to the lawsuit.
The public records were provided with an eight-page "privilege log" giving the reasons for blacking out information, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit asserts that the exemptions cited under Washington law to withhold information do not apply. Withholding the information makes it more difficult for the public to comment on the proposed commercial use of MOX fuel, including further spending on the proposal, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit asks for the withheld records and for the maximum fine allowed under Washington's Public Records Act of $100 per day for each day records were withheld, beginning March 19, 2010.
Energy Northwest has not been served with the lawsuit and cannot comment on it, Olson said.
However, if Energy Northwest does move forward with commissioning a study from PNNL, it will look carefully at safety and risk when the study is completed before making a decision to move forward, Olson said.
"We will not compromise safety," she said. "We would never make any changes unless they were well vetted and licensing was in place."
Energy Northwest previously said that if it did decide to use MOX fuel, there would be no changes in operations until 2016. The South Carolina plant to produce the MOX fuel is not expected to be operating until then. It will blend surplus weapons-grade plutonium with depleted uranium oxide to produce the fuel.