First American MOX Nuclear Fuel Factory Will Emit Radioactivity

WASHINGTON, DC, February 1, 2005 (ENS) - The final environmental impact statement on the first nuclear fuel factory in the United States to convert weapons grade plutonium and depleted uranium into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for nuclear power plants was released Friday by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "Human health impacts include potential exposure to radiological and chemical materials via pathways associated with air, water, soil, and the food chain," the impact statement says.

The $4 billion MOX fuel plant is planned for the Savannah River Site (SRS), a Department of Energy national laboratory in South Carolina near the Georgia border.

There are seven other MOX plants in operation around the world - two in Japan, one in India, one in Belgium, one in the United Kingdom, and two in France operated by the French state corporation Cogema, which is involved in the consortium that proposes to build the MOX plant in South Carolina.

The Energy Department has contracted with Duke Cogema Stone & Webster to design, construct, and operate the proposed facility as part of the DOE’s surplus plutonium disposition program.


MOX fuel assemblies like this one are composed of mixed plutonium and uranium oxides. (Photo courtesy Cogema) )
The purpose of the DOE program is to ensure that plutonium produced for nuclear weapons and declared excess to national security is converted to forms that are resistant to proliferation.

No U.S. nuclear power plant licensee has yet asked for the authority to use MOX fuel in a reactor.

The impact statement acknowledges that MOX facility workers, SRS employees elsewhere on the site, and members of the public "could be exposed to chemicals emitted to air, water, or soil" from the proposed MOX facility and its two associated operations - the Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility (PDCF), which would convert surplus plutonium from metallic form to plutonium dioxide powder, and the Waste Solidification Building.

"During an accident, facility workers might be subject to severe physical and thermal (fire) forces and could be exposed to releases of chemicals and radiation," the document states.

A release of the radioactive material tritium at the proposed PDCF was estimated to result in the largest short term exposure.

During regular operations, the impact statement says that 400 workers would be employed at the MOX plant and that any worker, if exposed to the allowed limit of radiation, would would be exposed to "a fatal cancer risk of one chance in 1,000" from inhalation exposure.

The SRS employees working elsewhere on the site would be exposed to a fatal cancer risk of one chance in 33 million.

Operation of the facilities is considered to have an insignificant impact on members of the public - 1 chance in 500 million.

Duke Cogema Stone & Webster has proposed to treat exhausts from the proposed MOX facility with a two stage high efficiency filter system to remove radioactive materials before the exhaust is discharged to the atmosphere.

Still, the document states that during normal operation the facilities would emit the radionuclides plutonium 236, 238, 239, 240, 241, 242, and americium 241, as well as uranium 234 and 235.


This worker deals with high-level radioactive waste on the Savannah River Site. (Photo courtesy SRS) )
In case of an accident, SRS employees and members of the public downwind of the accident might be exposed to airborne radioactive contamination, the impact statement said.

People could be exposed to radiation by inhalation of contaminated particulates, deposited radionuclides and from airborne radionuclides, and by eating contaminated food products - plants, meat, and dairy products.

"Plants grown in the area where the emission plume passed could become contaminated by deposition of radionuclides on the leaves or ground surfaces," the document states. "Radionuclides deposited on leaves could subsequently translocate to the edible portions of the plants, and those deposited on ground surfaces could subsequently be absorbed by plant roots. Livestock and their products could become contaminated if the livestock ate the contaminated surface soil and plants."

The FEIS says that three "latent cancer fatalities" could occur in the short term from a tritium accident at a support building, with 100 latent cancer fatalities possible if contaminated food is eaten.

The impact statement admits that minority communities could be impacted by an accident at the MOX plant and associated facilities and says that, "An environmental justice impact is possible from a severe accident."

The majority of the border of the SRS is populated by predominately minority and low income populations who rely heavily on homegrown foods and fish from the Savannah River, the impact statement acknowleged.

"It is a woefully inadequate analysis of plutonium and chemical accidents which could impact the public in Georgia and South Carolina," said Tom Clements, senior adviser with the Nuclear Campaign of Greenpeace International.

The EIS excludes analysis of the impact of an act of terrorism, an omission that Clements says is unrealistic.

"It's preposterous given the global threats which we face that the NRC is ignoring the potential environmental and health impacts of a terrorist act against the plutonium fuel factory," he said. "The EIS needs to be redone to include the impact of sabotage and terrorist attacks."

The proposed MOX facility would be licensed for 20 years and designed for a maximum annual throughput of 3.5 metric tons (3.9 tons) of plutonium, although according to the FEIS the actual amount of plutonium that would be converted is less than the design maximum - 34 metric tons (37.5 tons).

The MOX facility would be built on 41 acres of land in the F-Area of the 198,344 acre Savannah River Site. The SRS complex is bordered to the west by the Savannah River and Georgia, and is close to several major cities, including Augusta and Savannah, Georgia as well as Columbia, Greenville, and Charleston, South Carolina.

Transportation of uranium and plutonium feedstock materials, transuranic waste, fresh MOX fuel, and spent MOX fuel would result in two to five million miles traveled by 1,497 to 3,512 truck shipments over the operations period of the proposed MOX facility, according to the environmental impact statement.

Up to one latent cancer fatality "might be expected from the radioactive nature of the cargo," the FEIS says, and one to two latent fatalities from vehicle emissions were estimated, but no vehicle accidents were predicted.


A portion of the 310 square mile Savannah River Site. (Photo courtesy SRS) )
During the early 1950s SRS began to produce materials used in nuclear weapons, primarily tritium and plutonium-239. Five reactors were built to produce nuclear materials. Also built were support facilities, including two chemical separations plants, a heavy water extraction plant, a nuclear fuel and target fabrication facility, a tritium extraction facility and waste management facilities. SRS produced about 36 metric tons of plutonium from 1953 to 1988.

Spent nuclear fuel from the site’s production reactors, and from domestic and foreign research reactor programs, is currently stored at SRS awaiting final disposition.

The MOX FEIS reveals that the nuclear waste burden at the Savannah River Site will increase as the MOX plant would generate over a 10 year period 5,796 cubic yards of transuranic waste, six million gallons of liquid low-level waste and 7,916 cubic yards of solid low-level waste.

DOE must build a facility, the Waste Solidification Building, to manage much of this waste though there has been no announcement as to when an environmental impact statement on this facility would be released.

DOE plans to ship the transuranic waste off site but it is not clear if this would be allowed under current regulations.

The FEIS mentions that an accidental release of toxic chlorine or nitrogen tetroxide could envelope the MOX facility and cause "very large exposures to SRS workers at a distance of 100 meters (330 ft)."

"While the risk of such a deadly chemical accident is perhaps low, the results of it would be catastrophic to SRS workers," said Clements."

The environmental impact statement also evaluates the use of MOX fuel in a generic reactor using a 40 percent MOX fuel core. During normal operations or accidents that are within the design of the nuclear reactor, the impact would be about the same as for a reactor using 100 percent low-enriched uranium fuel, the impact statement says.

For accidents outside the design parameters of a reactor using MOX fuel, impacts "could be up to 14 percent greater than for a reactor using 100 percent low-enriched uranium fuel," according to the statement.

The EIS does not specify whether the plutonium currently stored at the Savannah River Site will be streamed into the proposed MOX fuel factory.

Clements believes that the DOE is looking at a revived program to vitrify in glass the plutonium now stored at SRS, though the environmental impact statement claims that the vitrification program has been canceled.


Pouring glass to immobilize radioactive waste (Photo courtesy Savannah River National Lab) )
According to a June 2004 report to Congress, the DOE was to develop a report on vitrification before the end of Fiscal Year 2004, and Greenpeace has learned this report is in the hands of DOE headquarters in Washington.

The report to Congress states that all the plutonium now stored at SRS and some other sites is "currently is without a disposition path."

Under Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules, a construction license for the MOX plant could be issued within 30 days though the licensing process is being formally challenged.

DOE recently claimed that the MOX plant construction will begin in spring 2005.

But as the U.S. program to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium is tied to a similar program in Russia there is little chance that this target date will be met as the Russians are far from being able to begin construction of a similar facility.

The MOX fuel factory was selected as the preferred method of disposing of the surplus plutonium rather than immobilizing it in glass, in a process known as vitrification. The impact statement explains that Russia does not consider immobilization alone to be an acceptable approach because immobilization, unlike the irradiation of MOX fuel, fails to degrade the isotopic composition of the plutonium.

Russia further contends that the United States could easily retrieve plutonium from the immobilized waste at a later date and reuse that plutonium in nuclear weapons. "Because an immobilization-only approach would jeopardize Russia’s continued involvement in the joint effort to reduce supplies of weapons-grade plutonium, the DOE decided that if only one disposition approach is to be pursued, the MOX fuel approach is the preferred one," the FEIS explains.

But in Clements' view the environmental risks of a MOX fuel factory are too great, and vitrification of the plutonium would be preferable.

"From a nuclear proliferation and security perspective," said Clements", the processing and handling of plutonium to make MOX fuel presents an unacceptable risk. As construction of the U.S. and Russian MOX plants continue to face delays, there is still time to halt this dangerous program and channel funds into the program to immobilize plutonium as nuclear waste."

From the Energy Department's viewpoint, the benefits of the MOX fuel facility outweigh the risks. "The primary national benefit of construction and operation of the proposed MOX facility would be a reduction in the supply of weapons-grade plutonium available for unauthorized use."

Once the plutonium component in MOX fuel has been irradiated in commercial nuclear reactors, the composition of the plutonium would be more proliferation resistant. Since the plutonium would then be part of the resultant high-level nuclear waste, the plutonium would no longer be available for other uses.

Compared with the no-action alternative - in which the weapons-grade plutonium would continue to be stored at several existing DOE locations - converting surplus plutonium into MOX fuel and irradiating it better ensures its security, since it would reduce the number of locations where the various forms of plutonium are stored, the Energy Department said.

"Converting surplus weapons-grade plutonium into MOX fuel is thus viewed as better ensuring that weapons-usable material would not be obtained by rogue states and terrorist groups."

The Final Environmental Impact Statement is found online at:

The June 16, 2004 report to Congress on plutonium disposition at the Savannah River Site is at: