Thursday, June 29, 2006

American Porblems with MOX fuels

MOX (Mixed Oxide) Fuels are generally used to recycle radioactive wastes from a once-through fuel cycle.

You have a reactor that "burns" Uranium - say enriched Uranium, i.e. a nuclear reaction occurs which causes the Uraniun in your fuel rode to split up into other elements. This splitting releases energy, you use that energy to heat steam and turn a turbine which makes electricity. After the fuel rods "burn" for a little while inside your reactor - other elements like Plutonium are formed due to several other nuclear reactions occurring inside the fuel rods.

At this point you have two choices - you can either take your fuel rod out of the reactor and bury it in a deep hole for about 100,000 years or you can mix it with a "fertile" element like Uranium-238 or Thorium and then use it to fire up another type of nuclear reactor and make more electricity with it. One technique for mixing involves mixing the oxides of these materials - this kind of fuel is called a Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel. It is possible to load MOX fuels into pre-existing reactor core designs. This saves a lot of money that is otherwise spent on designing a new core with all the new control mechanisms and safety features. MOX technology is currently used in commericial reactors in France.

The age of oil and natural gas is ending - if the United States would like to shift from oil and natural gas based energy to nuclear energy - it has to have a very reliable and robust option to produce MOX fuel. The main problems with MOX fuel are that fabrication of fuel rods is an expensive business. The French have proven teachnology that can do it but the Americans would probably prefer a way of making MOX fuel rods that they can use in their *existing* reactors. Also the United States would probably prefer a MOX fuel rod that burns military plutonium (Pu-239) along with enriched Uranium. Therein lies the problem - the Americans simply do not have a facility capable of producing this kind of MOX fuel rods at a low price in numbers (i.e. at an industrial scale).

And this is why Duke Energy in collaboration with Cogema (France) and Stone and Webster (DCS) are busy setting up a setting up a plant to make precisely this kind of fuel rod.

It is important to note that the Americans have in the past experimented with MOX fuels. There have been a number of cases where MOX assemblies were used in reactors, and at least one case where a commericial power reactor in the US used a MOX fuel. Other countries like Japan have gone much further and large utility companies in Japan purchase electricity made from burning MOX fuels.

Given the fact that the foundations that pay for all the Non-Proliferation Ayatollahs were all close to the Oil and Natural Gas industry, the NPA have have traditionally been hostile to MOX fuels. The NPA have raised a number of concerns about the MOX fuel used in reactors - most notably they term it a proliferation risk and say that it poses a higher risk of an accident. Given the rising concerns over the cost of ONG fuels - the NPA's wailing is unlikely to stop DCS from trying out MOX fuel.

As the ONG companies slowly become less and less profitable - the NPA tune will change - reflecting a change in their sugar daddies.

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