US MOX plant clears licensing hurdle

26 August 2010

A mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility being built in the USA to turn ex-military plutonium into fuel for nuclear power reactors has taken a step forward in the licensing process with the publication of a draft Safety Evaluation Report (SER) by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The report documents the NRC's technical safety review of Shaw Areva MOX Services' application for an operating licence for the facility, under construction at the Department of Energy's (DoE) Savannah River site in South Carolina. In it, the NRC has concluded that the descriptions, specifications, commitments and analyses provided by MOX Services provide an adequate basis for safety and safeguards operations, and that operation of the facility "would not pose an undue risk to worker and public health and safety."


Savannah River MOX Plant (Areva)
A recent shot shows construction in full swing (Image: Areva)
Unlike projects to build new nuclear power reactors, for which the NRC will issue combined construction and operation licences (COLs), the MOX facility is being licensed through a two-part process, firstly authorising construction of the plant and secondly licensing MOX Services to operate it. Construction authorisation was granted in March 2005, and work began on the plant, being built under the remit of the DoE's autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration, in 2007. The second stage of the licensing process, which includes NRC reviews of a licence application to possess and use special nuclear material (in other words, plutonium) and an Integrated Safety Analysis summary, is now ongoing.

NRC cautions that the SER does not represent a decision to issue an operation licence, which the regulator says it will issue only when it has verified that MOX Services has "properly constructed principal structures, systems and components." That, says the NRC, is not expected to happen for several years yet. Operations are set to begin at the plant in 2016.

MOX fuel uses a mixture of plutonium and uranium oxides to produce electricity in nuclear power plants. MOX, made from plutonium recovered from spent nuclear fuel, has been in commercial use at European plants since the 1980s and is now also in use in Japan. MOX can also be made from weapons-grade plutonium, providing a route to dispose of surplus plutonium while rendering it proliferation-proof and generating energy at the same time. However, as the USA's civil nuclear fuel cycle does not currently allow for MOX usage, the final destination for the output from the plant is still an area of some uncertainty.

The NNSA had for some time been cooperating with Duke Energy, conducting two 18-month trials of MOX fuel assemblies in the Catawba 1 reactor, but Duke allowed the contract to lapse in March 2009. Earlier this year, the government-owned Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) signed an agreement contract with NNSA to study the use the fuel in its nuclear power reactors.

The USA and Russia are now committed to disposing of 34 tonnes of excess weapons-grade plutonium each under a landmark treaty signed in April 2010.

Researched and written

by World Nuclear News