U.S. Requests License for Plutonium Shipment to France

The Department of Energy has filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission seeking permission to ship up to 140 kg (308 lbs) of weapons-grade plutonium oxide to France next year to advance U.S. efforts to convert excess U.S. plutonium stocks into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. MOX is a combination of plutonium oxide and uranium oxide that can be used in nuclear reactors.

According to the license request submitted by the Energy Department Oct. 1, the program is “necessary to obtain…approval for large-scale use of weapon[s]-grade MOX fuel in commercial reactors.” The Bush administration decided in January 2002 to convert U.S. stocks of excess weapon-grade plutonium to MOX fuel as the primary means of eliminating 34 tons of plutonium no longer necessary for military use in compliance with a 2000 agreement with Russia. (See ACT, March 2002.) Under the plan, the Energy Department would ship plutonium from Los Alamos National Laboratory to France’s Cadarache MOX facility.

The plutonium would be converted into MOX fuel, returned to the United States, and tested in the Catawba nuclear power plant in South Carolina to “confirm fuel performance and to demonstrate the United States’ capability to receive, inspect, [and] store the fuel assemblies at commercial reactors.” The Energy Department requested that the application review be completed by June 15, 2004, with an eye toward shipping the material in August 2004.

The United States currently is developing its own MOX fabrication facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. According to Energy Department officials, the United States must process the test fuel in France because it is unable to manufacture MOX fuel at this time. The U.S. facility is slated to start up in 2007.

In an attempt to head off concerns about possible proliferation and safety risks in transferring the weapons-grade material, the Energy Department application outlined security measures that would be taken. The Energy Department’s Safe Secure Transport system would provide guarded transportation of the material on the U.S. side, and the fissile material would be safeguarded in accordance with the U.S.-EURATOM peaceful nuclear agreement in France and while in transit overseas. The French government assured U.S. officials that material safeguards would be implemented in compliance with international regulations and that France would take security measures “comparable to those used” in the United States.