SRS starts construction on MOX fuel facility

AIKEN -- A South Carolina nuclear reprocessing project with a history of cost inflation, legal challenges and lackadaisical political support officially kicked off construction Wednesday.

The Department of Energy invited journalists to see the infancy of its mixed oxide (MOX) plant Wednesday near Aiken at the Savannah River Site, where construction is under way.

The plant, scheduled to be working by 2016, will reprocess weapons-grade plutonium into a mixture with uranium that will then be used by Duke Energy in the Charlotte area.

Duke Energy has an agreement to use the fuel in reactors at its Catawba Nuclear Station on Lake Wylie and its McGuire Nuclear Station on Lake Norman. Duke Energy is the sole power company to reach such a deal.

The company will modify the plants to use the MOX fuel; some modifications were made for Duke's tests of the fuel.

"It performed as we predicted it would perform," said Rita Sipe, spokeswoman for Duke.

Nuclear power plants run primarily on uranium. This process would break down the plutonium and mix it with uranium to make the fuel compatible with Duke's power plants. Though similar, the fuels do not behave identically, which necessitates modifying existing nuclear power plants to use MOX.

The site will process more than 75,000 pounds of plutonium that will be sent from Washington state, California, New Mexico and Texas, said William Tobey, the National Nuclear Security Administration's Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation.

"The Savannah River Site played a pivotal role in defending the United States during the Cold War," U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C, said in a news release Wedenesday. "Today, eliminating the nation's nuclear weaponry is a vital national security interest and has been a crucial issue for South Carolina for years.

"I am very encouraged the Department of Energy is finally moving forward with construction of the MOX facility and ensuring weapons-grade plutonium never falls into the hands of our enemies."

Dave Stinson, the project manager for Shaw/Areva MOX Services, said it will take the plant 13 years to process the initial 75,000 pounds.

Tobey refused to answer questions about how the plutonium would be transported to the site, citing national security.

Plutonium is more active than uranium in the reactor -- its atoms will split more easily than uranium's atoms, creating more energy. It can be more destructive than uranium, hence its use in weapons. Nuclear power plants that use uranium create a plutonium by-product.

The MOX plant originally was scheduled to open in 2009 and cost $1 billion to $1.6 billion. In 2002, then-Gov. Jim Hodges sued unsuccessfully to prevent plutonium shipments to the state. In 2005, a federal audit reported the project would cost $2.5 billion more than its original price tag. As recently as last year, the funding had been in jeopardy in the U.S. House of Representatives. The plant now is expected to cost $4.8 billion. But Tobey said the problems have passed.

"Actually, I think there is momentum behind this program (in Congress)," he said.