Energy Northwest considers mixed plutonium fuel

RICHLAND — Energy Northwest is considering whether mixed oxide fuel containing plutonium eventually might be used at its nuclear power plant near Richland, drawing opposition from an environmental group.

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.

Both Energy Northwest and the Tennessee Valley Authority are evaluating potential use of the fuel, according to information from the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future.

Energy Northwest is interested in advanced fuel technologies, including the mixed oxide fuel, or MOX fuel, said Rochelle Olson, spokeswoman for Energy Northwest.

But it has no plans to use MOX fuel without more research and cannot predict the viability of the fuel for use at the Richland plant yet, she said.

Energy Northwest is talking with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland about a study to evaluate the feasibility of using the fuel at the Columbia Generating Station, Olson said.

On Thursday, the Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, urged Energy Northwest to stop consideration of MOX, calling it costly and risky, in a statement released in South Carolina.

"Our first priority is safe operations of the Columbia Generating Station," Olson said. "We would never make any changes unless they were well-vetted and licensing was in place, but we will continue to work with the nuclear industry to evaluate all our options."

The planned study would answer questions such as whether there would be a security or a safety risk, Olson said.

However, MOX fuel is used safely in Europe, including at a German boiling water reactor, which is the same technology used in the plant near Richland, said Olson and Energy Northwest spokesman Mike Paoli.

The study would address the technical feasibility of using the MOX fuel specifically in the Energy Northwest reactor and how much could be used along with traditional uranium fuel.

It also would look at cost issues. "It must be economical," Olson said.

With a subcontract for the study expected to be signed soon, the national lab in Richland already has started some work on the 18-month project, according to PNNL.

If Energy Northwest decides to use MOX fuel, there would be no changes in operations until 2016, Olson said.

The $5 billion MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility is not expected to begin operating until then, blending surplus weapons-grade plutonium with depleted uranium oxide to produce the fuel.

That will help the United States meet an agreement signed with Russia in April committing each country to dispose of about 38 tons -- or 34 metric tons -- of weapons-grade plutonium. The United States has consolidated weapons-grade plutonium from Hanford and four other sites at Savannah River.

The NNSA said that MOX fuel fabrication technology is well established and mature, and MOX fuel is used in more than 30 commercial reactors worldwide. The U.S. MOX facility is based on French technology in use at two facilities in France, it said.

However, Friends of the Earth said the MOX fuel should not be used in any U.S. power plant, and says the MOX plant's operating license is being challenged by public interest groups.

* Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com