The Tokyo Electric Power Company said today that plutonium particles have been found at five sites on the sprawling reactor complex. The news that plutonium has been detected from partially-melted MOX fuel assemblies at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has sent shock waves from Paris to Washington because the two governments have bet billions of dollars/euros in taxpayer funds as well as based arms control agreements on taking nuclear weapon plutonium pits and converting the deadly material into mixed oxide (MOX) civilian reactor fuel.
The news from Japan that plutonium elements are showing up in the environment outside the reactors raises serious questions about the safety of mixed oxide fuel. French-government-controlled AREVA, the largest nuclear reactor supply company in the world, provided the processed MOX fuel for Tokyo Electric Reactor Number 3. This version of MOX is far less powerful than the fuel that will be produced at the first-of-its-kind MOX plant being built by the U.S. Department of Energy at the Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina. The first nuclear-bomb-based fuel assemblies are promised by DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration, the weapons side of DOE in charge of the MOX project, from the AREVA-designed plant at SRS in 2017-18.
Even prior to the Fukushima disaster, the SRS MOX project was in serious trouble. After AREVA made test fuel assemblies out of weapons grade plutonium sent to France from the United States under armed guard, Duke Energy tested the units in its Catawba nuclear power plant. Duke stopped the test in mid-cycle when the fuel was not behaving as expected in the reactor. Duke dropped out of the entire MOX partnership with NNSA after the test failure and gave up its ten percent interest in the project.
“This is a project sold by the Bush and Obama White House and received billions and should have never been approved,” a former high-level DOE official told DCBureua.org. “This was about keeping the nuclear weapons lines open by claiming old weapons could be converted into energy. The problem is we really don’t even know if it can be done and we have relied on the French because we think weapons grade will behave just like reactor grade reprocessed plutonium. After Fukushima it is clear we can’t even manage the reactor grade MOX.” The official declined to be quoted by name because he fears retribution from the powerful NNSA. “If you don’t follow their script, they can make certain you don’t work again. They control the contractors,” he said.
As the slow motion meltdown continues in Japan, the French and American governments are focused on Reactor Number 3 which was operating the less powerful prototypes of what the United States is spending $6 billion to produce. The MOX plant is but one of several hugely expensive facilities NNSA wants to build to modernize the aging nuclear weapons complex in the United States. Because the MOX process is essentially the reverse of the weapons making process, these new facilities could be used to begin making weapons again, according to a DOE official who asked not to be identified.
One of the dangers in making MOX fuel is grinding up plutonium into a fine powder to be mixed with uranium into the fuel assemblies. Plutonium is most dangerous in powered form. A filter failure at the fully automated MOX plant or any kind of production leak could endanger lives on and off the manufacturing site (think Rocky Flats).
Fortunately for TEPCO customers, the MOX fuel rods had not been through a whole fuel cycle and then stored in the damaged spent fuel pool above the reactor. Had MOX spent fuel been in the spent fuel pool, the danger for contamination would have much worse than the exposure and damage Japan now faces.
The Tokyo Electric Company confirmed that AREVA-manufactured fuel assemblies containing plutonium have at least partially melted down when they said that plutonium was found on five separate sites on the reactor grounds, and they had matched the plutonium signature of fuel produced at AREVA’s La Hague facility. The fuel assemblies were first loaded in the reactor at Fukushima last September and were in Reactor 3 when the 14 meter tsunami overwhelmed the nuclear plant.
Despite the fact that plutonium is one of the most deadly substances in existence, TEPCO has insisted there is no health danger from the plutonium found on site. According to health experts, plutonium particles absorbed in the human body vastly increases the chance of dying from a fatal form of cancer.
The former DOE official said, “NNSA was warned this kind of event could happen and they chose to build the MOX plant anyway. Maybe what Japan is going through will wake up people who can call a halt to this.”