Los Alamos National Laboratory is doubling down on a project that helps create a controversial, highly reactive new fuel used in nuclear power plants. Beginning next year, LANL will create twice as much plutonium oxide, an essential component of mixed oxide, or MOX, fuel, which combines uranium and plutonium.
MOX fuel is believed to have amplified the effects of the recent nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan.
The federal Department of Energy is creating MOX fuel to comply with a nuclear disarmament protocol that US and Russian leaders signed in spring 2010. Both countries agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons (approximately 75,000 pounds) of weapons-grade plutonium, either by immobilizing it to prevent future use or by converting it to nuclear fuel. DOE chose the latter, and is using a LANL facility to disassemble plutonium warheads and convert them to plutonium oxide. The plutonium oxide is then shipped to a facility in Savannah, Ga., where it is mixed with uranium to make MOX fuel.
Concerns about both the safety and cost-effectiveness of MOX fuel have dogged the project. One of the three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi plant that melted down in March was powered partly by MOX fuel. Because of its high reactivity, MOX fuel is believed to have exacerbated the disaster.
Even before Fukushima, safety concerns about MOX fuel prompted a company called Duke Energy, in 2009, to withdraw plans to buy it. Since then, no other utility company has committed to buying MOX fuel, which is more expensive than regular uranium fuel, but National Nuclear Security Administration spokeswoman Toni Chiri says negotiations with two other utility companies are underway.
Nuclear disarmament activists such as Nuclear Watch New Mexico Executive Director Jay Coghlan also question the wisdom of shipping plutonium oxide—which can be used to make bombs—between sites.
LANL wasn't originally envisioned as the MOX program's main source of plutonium oxide. A separate facility at Savannah was slated to produce it; LANL was to provide the material as a stopgap until Savannah's facility went online. But this fall, Congress recommended slashing the Savannah facility's budget, leaving LANL holding the bag. LANL is currently the nation's only producer of plutonium oxide for the MOX program, which is estimated to eventually need 3.5 metric tons each year.
Last month, LANL announced that it has so far produced 530 pounds of plutonium oxide at a rate of approximately 330 pounds per year. Starting next year, it hopes to make 660 pounds per year.
At the same time, the facility being used to make plutonium oxide faces safety violations. Some of the facility's functions are on hold pending development of new safety procedures [briefs, Oct. 26: "Hot Water "]. An NNSA memo states that LANL staff members have known about some of the issues since 2006, but have repeatedly failed to fix them. The memo says the lapses "reflect poorly" on the operator and calls staff members "over-confident" in their approach to safety.
Another problem is that LANL's facility was never designed for large-scale plutonium oxide production. Instead, it was a prototype for the new technology. A 2008 NNSA report says that if a new Savannah facility didn't pick up the slack, LANL might need to process a potentially dangerous amount of plutonium oxide. Even if LANL outfitted workers with thicker gloves and shielding aprons, they might be exposed to radiation levels that exceed federal standards, the report states.
Tom Clements, Southeastern Nuclear Campaign Coordinator for Friends of the Earth, says the production increase amplifies the safety risks.
"There's more possibility for worker exposure, for some kind of criticality accident and for release of plutonium into the environment," Clements says, adding that shipment of plutonium to and from LANL would also increase the risk of its being intercepted.
Depending on the level of production, plutonium oxide production costs LANL $42-$93 million per year, according to the 2008 report. That taxpayer money won't reap any return unless MOX fuel finds a buyer—an even slimmer possibility since the Fukushima meltdown raised awareness of the fuel's risks.
"This is another boondoggle for the taxpayer, another loss," Coghlan says. "We no longer have the fat on the land whereby we can support these losing programs that not only have safety problems and potential proliferation problems, but also economically just don't make sense."