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Nuclear Fuel Facility In SC Moves Ahead

Nuclear regulators gave key approval to a facility under construction on South Carolina that will convert left-over plutonium from the country's nuclear weapons program into fuel for power plants. The facility under construction in Aiken, South Carolina is meant to solve this problem: What to do with the radioactive plutonium left over from nuclear weapons the U.S. has dismantled since the Cold War? The Department of Energy's plan is a nearly $5 billion facility that will turn that plutonium into fuel that power companies can use to make electricity. This week the Nuclear Regulatory Commission declared the facility will pose no undue risk to public safety and health. "But the biggest problem for this project is there are absolutely no reactors to use the plutonium since Duke Energy pulled out of the program over a year ago," says Tom Clements, the southeast nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth. Numerous environmental groups like Clements' say the Department of Energy is wasting taxpayer dollars to build the facility with no guarantee the resulting nuclear fuel will be used - or usable. Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists believes the so-called "mixed oxide" or MOX fuel will be too unstable and unpredictable for use in nuclear power plants. "I have serious doubts and that's why right now there's no utility in the country that has said affirmatively that it wants to use it," says Lyman. The Department of Energy says the fuel is safe. "Mixed oxide fuel has been used in other countries around the world and has a record of being a reliable fuel with no different problems or any other issues than any other type of fuel that you would have in a reactor," says DOE spokesman Jim Giusti. But Lyman and other critics point out European countries are using a form of plutonium that is less radioactive than the weapons-grade stuff the DOE plans to use. Duke Energy abandoned tests of the MOX fuel in one of its Catawba nuclear reactors last year. Duke Energy spokeswoman Rita Sipe says the company's concern was not the fuel's safety. Rather, she says Duke needed more assurance that enough of the fuel would be available to meet the company's needs. Now the DOE is in talks with the Tennessee Valley Authority. "We are working to ensure that we have customers to take our product and we think we will be there when the facility is operational," says DOE spokesman Giusti. Construction on the facility should be complete in 2016.