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Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(September 26, 2003) NIRS Southeast Office has filed a petition to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to intervene in Duke Energy Corporation's bid to modify the operating licenses of four nuclear reactors near Charlotte, North Carolina, in order to test sample MOX fuel that would be made in France. If Duke is successful, the NRC would allow any one of the Catawba-1 & -2 and McGuire-1 & -2 reactors to be used to test four sample assemblies, or "lead test assemblies" (LTAs) to be made of US weapons grade plutonium. NIRS cited a number of environmental and safety concerns that would impact NIRS members living in the Charlotte area. The test assemblies are to be manufactured at the unsafe Cadarache MOX plant in France.

(593.5543) NIRS Southeast / WISE Amsterdam - The MOX testing is part of the Department of Energy's (DOE) plutonium disposition program. Under that plan, weapons grade plutonium from nuclear weapons will be used in Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel. Both the U.S. and Russia agreed to dispose of 32 MT of weapons plutonium each. Until 2002, the U.S. had chosen for the "dual track" option: 25.6 tons of plutonium would be used as MOX and 8.4 tons would be immobilized (instead of re-use in reactors it would be mixed with glass).(1)

In April 2002, the U.S. government decided to terminate the immobilization track in favor of the (more expensive) "single track" MOX option. A joint venture of Duke Energy, Cogema and Stone & Webster, chosen in 1999 to develop industrial scale MOX fabrication, is now charged with a larger MOX disposition program than earlier anticipated.(2)

The MOX plant is to be built at DOE's Savannah River Site complex in South Carolina at a cost of US$ 2 billion or more. There is big opposition to the plans for the dangerous MOX facility.(3) Since the US MOX factory has not yet been approved or built, Duke and their associates Cogema and Stone & Webster are seeking additional approvals to make the sample test fuel assemblies in France. The test fuel may be moot since challenges continue to the construction of the Savannah MOX fuel factory.

DOE must supply the weapons grade material in order for the test to be representative of the MOX fuel that would be used in the Duke reactors. More than 150 kilograms of weapons grade plutonium would be shipped to France under this proposal - enough for at least 50 high-yield nuclear weapons. The transport would be via truck in continental U.S. and by ship across the global commons. To top it off, a French plutonium fuel factory (Cadarache) that has been recently closed due to safety considerations will be reopened to make the experimental fuel.

Because of the inability to manufacture the test assemblies in the U.S., contacts were made with European MOX fabricators in Belgium and France. The plans first focused on Belgonucleaire's P0 plant in Dessel, Belgium. But as a result of the complex and shifting politics of the Belgian government, Belgium's prospects faded over the past year.(4)

In July 2002, the indefinite delay of the Belgian government decision on the issue turned the focus on the "ATPe" plant at Cadarache, France. On 12 August, Duke, Cogema and Stone & Webster awarded the contract for the test assemblies to Cogema Cadarache.(5) The French ministries of Foreign Affairs and Industry have given their approval but before fabrication safety authorities still have to give their permission.(6)

But the French government and operator Cogema have decided on the definitive closure of the old plant by 31 July 2003, in particular due to its poor anti-seismic design standards. With the current plan to manufacture the MOX test assemblies for Duke, the unsafe Cadarache facility now seems to restart its work.(7) (8)

"If the French facility is unsafe for further handling of European plutonium, how can it possibly be safe for processing U.S. military plutonium?", asked Tom Clements of Greenpeace International. In addition to environmental concerns of shipment, the recent arrest in Morocco of a suspected terrorist who said that French plutonium transports were a target has increased concern over the shipment. "To go forward with this transport, which would be DOE's equivalent of saying 'bring 'em on', constitutes reckless behavior and must be stopped".(9)

The plan to send U.S. plutonium to France was spot lighted in a letter from NIRS and Greenpeace International to U.S. Secretary of Energy, Spencer Abraham, and endorsed by 62 concerned organizations calling on DOE to obey the law and conduct a complete environmental, security and liability review of the entire "euro fab" option for the test MOX fuel. The groups signing the letter included 39 from the U.S. and 23 from other countries, including France and Russia.(10)

According to the groups, a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) is necessary for the overseas production of test fuel. The original plans assumed test fuel production in the U.S. and were included in the EIS earlier prepared on the plutonium disposition program. The move to Europe constitutes a "significant" change to the earlier proposal and DOE is thus obligated under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to prepare a Supplement to the EIS.

DOE apparently is now trying to prevent too much public input and intends to prepare only a "Supplement Analysis" (SA), which according to NEPA regulations, can be prepared without public notice or input. "Given the potential impact to the environment in case of an accident or terrorist incident, DOE must not be allowed to only prepare the cursory, secret document that it is now considering", said Clements.(11)

Duke's attempt to gain approval to test MOX fuel has also been challenged by Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL), represented by Diane Curran and expert Dr. Edwin Lyman. If approved, Duke would load the test fuel in 2005 and irradiate it for 2 - 3 cycles, with hopes of beginning to load up to 40% MOX into each of the four reactors in 2008.(12)

(1) WISE News Communique 534.5201: "Fischer allows export of German MOX plant to Russia, 15 September 2000
(2) U.S. MOX "Lead Test Assembly" Controversy: Fabrication at Cadarache, France, WISE-Paris, July 2003; report at
(3) WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 561.5358: "Legal challenge to US MOX boiling on two fronts", 11 January 2002
(4) NuclearFuel, 1 September 2003
(5) NuclearFuel, 1 September 2003
(6) NuclearFuel, 15 September 2003
(7) U.S. MOX "Lead Test Assembly" Controversy: Fabrication at Cadarache, France, WISE-Paris, July 2003; report at
(8) WISE News Communique 533.5192: "France: MOX facility at Cadarache at risk", 1 September 2000
(9) NIRS/Greenpeace International press release, 15 September 2003
(10) Letter to Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, 15 September 2003
(11) NIRS/Greenpeace International press release, 15 September 2003
(12) see also

Contact: NIRS Southeast at