Citizen challenge to plutonium accounting at MOX facility gets second hearing

Atlanta, GA….A panel of judges for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will convene at NRC headquarters in Rockville, MD, on May 21-22, 2013, for a second hearing of issues raised by Nuclear Watch South, along with Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL) and Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS), about inadequate plans for plutonium control and accounting at the controversial MOX plutonium fuel factory under construction at Savannah River Site (SRS).

Dr. Edwin S. Lyman, a senior scientist with Union of Concerned Scientists, is serving as an expert witness in the legal intervention to block the MOX factory operating license and has flagged several concerns that were accepted by the Atomic Safety & Licensing Board of the NRC after several rounds of argument and deliberation. According to Dr. Lyman, the applicant’s proposed plutonium accounting methods are so deeply flawed, the risk of plutonium theft would be increased to an unacceptable level if the MOX factory design is licensed to operate without fundamental changes to material control and accounting plans.

“Plutonium must be tightly monitored and controlled throughout the entire MOX fuel fabrication process to prevent weapon-usable material from falling into the wrong hands,” said Dr. Lyman. “However, Shaw AREVA is proposing a cut-rate approach for plutonium accounting that will make it much harder to detect a diversion or theft of plutonium before it is too late. Their computer-heavy approach could also increase the vulnerability of their accounting system to cyber attack.”

Representing the citizen groups before the NRC in the MOX intervention is Washington, DC-based public interest attorney Diane Curran. The MOX plutonium legal hearing is closed to the public because it deals with some issues that are “Sensitive Unclassified Nuclear Security Information” (SUNSI). Many of the briefs filed in the legal intervention are similarly unavailable for public view.

The basis of the issues filed by Nuclear Watch South and the other groups is Shaw AREVA MOX Services’ (aka “Shaw AREVA” or “MOX Services”) inability to satisfy U.S. NRC regulations because of a “fundamental and insurmountable design problem: the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility is based on a French design that was never intended to meet, and is unable to meet, the physical verification requirements of U.S. NRC material control and accounting (MC&A) regulations with regard to item monitoring, alarm resolution, and assessment of alleged thefts.” (from an April 19, 2013 filing by Nuclear Watch South, BREDL and NIRS).

Shaw AREVA proposes to rely heavily on a computerized inventory system to meet certain NRC MC&A regulations in lieu of conventional approaches that entail physical verification of plutonium items. The groups’ attorney, Diane Curran said, “At the first hearing in the spring of 2012, it was clear that MOX Services is either unwilling or unable to satisfy the clear requirements of NRC regulations for a means to verify the presence and integrity of plutonium items. This hearing is intended to give MOX Services another chance to show it will comply with the requirements. But MOX Services has done nothing to show that fundamental defect in its plutonium control and accounting program has been resolved. The NRC therefore lacks a legal basis for issuing an operating license to MOX Services.”

The MOX legal hearing comes as Congressional budget considerations have highlighted other problems with the Department of Energy’s plutonium disposition program and the MOX plutonium fuel factory in particular. DOE now estimates that completion of the MOX factory under construction at SRS will cost $7.7 billion, or nearly four times the initial estimate, and is more than a decade behind schedule. Moreover, no commercial reactors have been secured to irradiate the MOX plutonium fuel, which was the basic intent to provide a high-radiation barrier to “protect” the plutonium from theft or diversion into nuclear weapons.

Dr. Lyman has famously called the MOX plutonium program “the MOX factory to nowhere.” DOE is currently proposing to cut the MOX budget, slow down construction of the incomplete factory, and seek alternatives to MOX for secure disposal of plutonium. Nuclear Watch South Coordinator Glenn Carroll has actively participated in all phases of MOX licensing and will also attend Tuesday’s hearing. “We are delighted that DOE has finally realized that the billions of tax dollars being drained by the ‘MOX factory to nowhere’ is a huge waste of money, as we have become well acquainted with the serious plutonium security gaps that remain unaddressed in 13 years of licensing review,” she says. “Despite Senator Graham’s desire to save the pork-barrel MOX program for his state, the MOX program will never satisfy U.S. treaty obligations if the plutonium fuel is never irradiated in a reactor. “There are viable alternatives to MOX which are cheaper, safer and more efficient and it is high time to put them on the table. Highly radioactive tank waste and orphaned plutonium already at SRS are a ‘marriage made in heaven’ that will solve two dire problems in one righteous program, with jobs and money to satisfy Senator Graham’s concerns, too,” Ms. Carroll concludes. MOX licensing and citizen legal opposition commenced in 2001 in two phases of licensing: construction authorization which was followed by the current operation and possession of special material (plutonium) license application. In the ensuing decade several positive outcomes have been gained by Nuclear Watch South (formerly Georgians Against Nuclear Energy, aka GANE). Initially, MOX contractors intended to put highly toxic, radioactive MOX waste into the tank farms at SRS but legal pressure from GANE prompted the addition of a dedicated MOX waste processing building.

Seismic concerns which were raised by GANE prompted the NRC licensing review staff to require current regional seismic modeling, an upgrade which was also applied to the licenses for Summer and Vogtle, new commercial reactors under construction in SC and GA respectively. A contention about security filed by GANE one month prior to 9/11 launched an ongoing national discussion about requirements to review terrorism and insider sabotage under the National Environmental Policy Act. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) of the NRC which is hearing the citizen groups’ legal intervention is comprised of Michael C. Farrar, Chairman; Dr. Nicholas G. Trikouros and Paul Abramson. For more background on MOX, plutonium and the citizen groups’ legal intervention visit ###