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MONDAY, MARCH 22, 1999

CONTACT: Tom Clements, Ed Lyman


DOE Contract for Mixed-Oxide Fuel in U.S. Reactors
Will Waste Millions, Increase Health and Security Risks

WASHINGTON, DC --- The Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) today warned that the awarding of a $130 million contract by the Department of Energy (DOE) could lead to the unprecedented use of warhead plutonium fuel in U.S. nuclear reactors, require hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies to nuclear utilities, and greatly increase cancer risk to the public from a severe accident.

The DOE contract is for the fabrication and irradiation of mixed plutonium-uranium oxide (MOX) fuel by an international consortium of European plutonium companies and American electrical utilities. The consortium includes plutonium-fuel fabricators Cogema and Belgonucléaire (based in France and Belgium respectively) and utilities Duke Power and Virginia Power. It plans to build a MOX fuel fabrication plant, most likely at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and to irradiate the fuel in the Catawba reactors in South Carolina, the McGuire reactors in North Carolina and the North Anna reactors in Virginia.

"Duke Power is seriously underplaying the safety risks associated with using plutonium fuel in its nuclear plants," said Dr. Edwin Lyman, NCI's Scientific Director and author of a MOX technical study released by NCI in January. Dr. Lyman found that use of a one-third core of warhead plutonium fuel in U.S. nuclear reactors could result in a 37% increase in cancer risk to the public in the event of a severe accident. He also documented that plutonium fuel has been observed to be more vulnerable to rupture than uranium fuel under certain accident conditions.

"A nuclear reactor using MOX fuel contains greater quantities of plutonium and other hazardous actinides than one using only uranium fuel," Dr. Lyman said. "In the event of a containment-failure or -bypass accident, releases of these additional actinides could cause hundreds to thousands of additional cancer deaths among the public in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and the Washington, D.C. area.

"While Duke Power claims that the use of MOX fuel in France is safe," Dr. Lyman continued, "it has stated it does not intend to install additional control rods in its reactors, or to place limits on the irradiation time of plutonium fuel compared with uranium fuel

---the minimal safety adaptations that are required for use of MOX in France. Duke is planning to cut corners here in a way which could seriously impact safety," Dr. Lyman warned.

"It is especially ironic that this contract is being awarded only days before the 20th anniversary of the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident," Dr. Lyman added. "Instead of redoubling efforts to improve the safety of their plants and reduce the risk of another TMI, Duke Power and Virginia Power are taking on new challenges that will reduce safety margins and increase risk."

NCI Executive Director Tom Clements said, "While U.S. taxpayers will bear the brunt of this program, they won't even be informed of the total bill, because Duke Power is keeping the amount of its proposed subsidies confidential. But it won't be a bargain. Since this consortium was the sole bidder for the contract, it no doubt extracted very favorable terms from DOE for its member companies at the expense of the taxpayer."

Clements also expressed concerns about the proliferation risks of the MOX program. "This contract will also send a signal to other nations like France and Japan that the use of plutonium in commercial reactors is now acceptable, which will encourage them to continue to reprocess their spent fuel and extract even more plutonium. This can only increase risks to international security, in spite of what DOE claims."

"Instead," Clements said, "DOE should be concentrating on the other alternative it is pursuing for warhead plutonium disposition, which is cheaper, faster and safer---namely, immobilizing plutonium in already existing nuclear wastes for direct disposal."

Additional information on DOE's plutonium disposition program can be found on NCI's World Wide Web site: http://www.nci.org/nci-wpu.htm

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