Still Nixing MOX

By Bonnie Urfer
Nukewatch Staff

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is operating under a veil of secrecy trying to disguise bad policy, dangerous maneuvers and the unnecessary spread of plutonium. The agency filed formal notice on Nov. 17 that it intends to ship "mixed oxide" fuel (MOX) containing 119 grams of weapons-grade plutonium from New Mexico to Chalk River, Ontario.

The mixed oxide fuel consists of surplus plutonium from nuclear weapons production mixed with a bit of fresh uranium oxide. The DOE finds itself faced with more than 50 tons of surplus plutonium. At Chalk River, MOX will be inserted as pellets into a reactor to see how it does as fuel. It's just one more big experiment in the long line of nuclear gambles.

MOX transport procedures lack full public disclosure, adequate study, safety guarantee, and public input and decision making. Opposition had to grow quickly. Demonstrations have occurred and numerous tribes and organizations have promised resistance to shipments.

The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne plans to prevent MOX from entering Canada from the U.S. and keep shipments from entering the country from Russia. The Council is "outraged that the Government of Canada would allow such a dangerous transport to proceed despite the outcry of organizations, citizens, government leaders and indigenous tribes in Quebec and Ontario," according to a press release. The DOE found it necessary to use undisclosed routes and increase security in the face of widespread plans to halt MOX on the highway.

Two options have been presented for dealing with the waste plutonium. One is to move it into reactor cores as MOX which is dangerous and where it will become even "hotter." The other option is to take the plutonium, encase it in glass "logs" inside steel cans and store it for 240,000 years. To date, the U.S. is exploring both procedures while stockpiling enough plutonium pits to make as many nuclear weapons as they wish.

The U.S. is planning to build three new MOX processing facilities at Savannah River in Georgia. The DOE estimates it will cost about $1.5 billion to design and build the three facilities and another $1.5 billion to operate them. The long-term goal includes dismantling the MOX facilities in about 2020. The program would create up to 4,000 construction jobs and about 1,100 operational jobs at the Savannah River Site, which employs about 14,000 people now.

Cost estimates for the "Parallex" project, as the Canadian MOX experiment is called, range from $4.3 million to $5.8 million and long-term projections come in at a conservative $2.56 billion. The DOE never includes the costs of cleanup, waste storage or environmental damages up front. If the plutonium were to be processed in-country for long-term storage in glass and steel, the short-term costs decrease by $1.5 billion, and the process would begin earlier. The DOE also plans to help Russia with a few bucks so they can use MOX as fuel.

Russian, Canadian, French, Japanese, British and U.S. companies are already calculating their profits from sales of MOX fuel and future electricity production*before they even know if it will work. Canada is expected to make $500 million in subsidies on one shipment from Russia. Most of the U.S. reactor operators interested in MOX fuel have licensing periods ending within 30 years, the same time frame for readying a reactor and MOX fuel for 100% containment and output.

Safety concerns abound with every aspect of MOX. The fuel is not tested, the test is taking place in Canada. Canadian citizens contend they may become a de-facto waste dump. Canada has no high-level radioactive waste storage facility. France has already had serious problems with MOX but is continuing to push for MOX "recycling." Japan's Green Action and Osaka Citizens have begun legal proceedings to prevent MOX burns at two of Kasai's reactors. British Nuclear Fuels is suspected of falsifying records and producing unacceptable and dangerous MOX fuel pellets for Japan.

A plan to ship plutonium through Michigan brought a standing-room-only crowd to a public hearing in Saginaw last month. Law enforcement officers, emergency management leaders and politicians didn't buy the government's safety assurances. Not a single person supported the shipments. If the U.S. government would bother to ask, citizens across the country would echo the same sentiment. No MOX fuel; no MOX shipments!