Nuclear fuel test failure raises concerns

Nuclear fuel test failure raises concerns

Tom Clements, Friends of the Earth, 803-834-3084
Elliott Negin, Union of Concerned Scientists, 202-331-5439



WASHINGTON (August 4, 2008) — Citing the recent failure of an experimental plutonium fuel assembly test at a South Carolina nuclear plant, two watchdog groups today called on the Department of Energy (DOE) to suspend a risky, multibillion dollar program that would use 37 tons of surplus nuclear weapons plutonium for U.S. nuclear reactor fuel.

Friends of the Earth and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) discovered that the test, scheduled to run for four-and-a-half years to demonstrate the safety of mixed-oxide (or MOX) fuel in Duke Energy’s Catawba nuclear reactor, had to be aborted after only three years. The fuel assemblies, produced by the French state-owned company AREVA, grew abnormally long in the reactor. This excessive growth is a safety hazard, the groups said, because it can deform and damage the MOX fuel. Duke Energy informed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) about the aborted test in a June 10 report.

“The failure of the plutonium fuel experiment is another major setback for the MOX program, and will further increase the already considerable cost overruns, delays and risks,” said Tom Clements, Friends of the Earth’s Southeastern Nuclear Campaign coordinator, who is based in Columbia, South Carolina. “Congress needs to pull the plug before even more taxpayer money is wasted.”

“DOE should not cut corners in safety testing,” said UCS Senior Staff Scientist Edwin Lyman. “To go forward with MOX now, AREVA would have to redesign the MOX fuel, and Duke would have to repeat the entire experiment, delaying the testing program by at least eight years. DOE should instead dispose of the plutonium directly by mixing it with radioactive waste and encasing it in glass, which would be safer and cheaper than continuing the MOX program.”

Lyman further noted that the French facility where AREVA produced the MOX fuel from U.S. weapons plutonium is now closed, potentially leaving the DOE without a test fuel supplier.

The abnormal fuel assembly growth that terminated the MOX experiment has broader safety implications. The NRC has allowed dozens of AREVA uranium fuel assemblies with the same flaw to remain in other U.S. reactors, including Three Mile Island-1 in Pennsylvania, Davis-Besse in Ohio, Oconee in South Carolina, and Crystal River in Florida. AREVA told the NRC in April that it has not as yet determined the cause of the problem, although it may be related to an experimental alloy known as “M5” AREVA uses in the “guide tubes” where the control rods that shut down the reactor are inserted. Whatever the cause, the problem indicates that the NRC’s licensing process for new fuels is inadequate, the groups said.

For a brief UCS-FoE backgrounder on the MOX test, go to

For Duke’s June 10, 2008 report to the NRC, go to the NRC’s ADAMS digital library. Search for “ML081650181” at

For an April 2008 AREVA presentation that discusses the abnormal fuel assembly growth problem, go to NRC’s ADAMS digital library and search for “ML081300390.”



Friends of the Earth ( is the U.S. voice of the world’s largest grassroots environmental network, with member groups in 70 countries. Since 1969, Friends of the Earth has been at the forefront of high-profile efforts to create a more healthy, just world.

Founded in 1969, the Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. The organization is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also has offices in Berkeley, Chicago and Washington, D.C. For more information, go to