Fuel study will not go ahead in Richland

Energy Northwest will not move forward with a study on using mixed oxide fuel containing plutonium at its nuclear power plant near Richland.

It had been considering the possibility of using the fuel at the Columbia Generating Station, with the first step to be an 18-month feasibility study with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

However, Energy Northwest officials said at a board meeting Wednesday in Richland that they were moving away from consideration of the mixed oxide, or MOX, fuel after making arrangements in May for fuel to supply the plant through 2028, said Energy Northwest spokesman John Dobken. No formal action was taken at the meeting, he said.

In the unusual deal reached in May, depleted uranium stored by DOE is being transferred to Energy Northwest and then being enriched at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky. Even though Energy Northwest already had enough fuel to last until 2020, it believes the depleted uranium deal will provide a stable supply of fuel at below-market cost from then through 2028.

Energy Northwest has not ruled out the possibility of considering MOX fuel for use after 2028, Dobken said.

"We will continue to monitor it because we think it's a valuable program," he said. "It takes weapons-grade (material) and turns it into a positive use."

But for now, Energy Northwest resources are better focused on plant performance and reliability, he said.

Energy Northwest had said previously that its first priority is safe operation of the Columbia Generating Station, and it would not make any changes to its fuel program unless they were well-vetted and licensing was in place.

The PNNL study would have answered questions such as whether MOX fuel posed a security or safety risk and the feasibility of using MOX fuel in the Energy Northwest reactor, including how much could be used along with traditional uranium fuel, it said.

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.

Tennessee Valley Authority and Energy Northwest were evaluating potential use of the fuel.

Although Energy Northwest no longer has an immediate need for the fuel, The Associated Press reported this week that DOE is preparing an environmental study on using the fuel at Tennessee Valley Authority nuclear plants.

The plan to use the fuel has been opposed by Friends of the Earth in South Carolina, which has called it costly and risky.

Heart of America Northwest Research Center filed a Benton County Superior Court lawsuit in 2011 for the release of Energy Northwest records related to MOX fuel and said in court records that 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 was concerned that MOX fuel could be fabricated at Hanford, creating more radiactive waste as environmental cleanup is under way at the nuclear reservation. The lawsuit was dismissed this spring.