The operator of Washington's only nuclear-power plant is considering use of the plutonium fuel that has raised special concerns about one of Japan's damaged nuclear reactors.
Officials at the Columbia Generating Station, on the Hanford nuclear reservation, have been quietly discussing the use of so-called mox fuel for at least two years -- but had hoped to keep the fact out of the news.
In the case of an accident, some experts say fuel made from highly toxic plutonium can produce more dangerous fallout than standard uranium fuel. Plutonium fuel is also harder to control, said nuclear scientist Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.
The nuclear-watchdog group Heart of America Northwest sued the plant's operator this week, alleging that Energy Northwest improperly withheld information about the proposal requested under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Spokeswoman Rochelle Olson said Energy Northwest and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have been discussing the use of mox, or mixed oxide fuel, but don't know if they will conduct a feasibility study. "We have made no decisions," she said. "The first priority for us is the safe operation of our nuclear-generating station."
Use of plutonium reactor fuel could help draw down stockpiles from weapons production and dismantling of nuclear warheads, Olson said. And because the country is anxious to find an application for it, plutonium fuel could be cheaper.
No U.S. nuclear plants currently use the plutonium fuel.
This week, Japan deployed fire trucks and helicopters to dump water on the No. 3 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, where stored fuel rods are overheating and containment structures may have been damaged. The reactor is the only one in the complex to use mox fuel.
"The possibility of a very significant plutonium release and subsequent plutonium contamination of areas around the plant ... is a very big issue at reactor 3," said Dr. Ira Helfand, of Physicians for Social Responsibility, an anti-nuclear group.
What it is
Even uranium fuel contains some plutonium, which is produced during the fission process. Mox fuel, which is a mixture of uranium and plutonium, contains a higher proportion of plutonium -- between 5 and 9 percent, Makhijani said. Plutonium has a half life of 250,000 years. Inhaling a few particles can cause lung cancer.
The National Nuclear Security Administration is building a $4.8 billion plant to turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel at the Department of Energy's Savannah River site in South Carolina. But so far, few utilities have expressed interest in using it.
Hanford's nuclear experts are experienced in handling weapons-grade material, Olson said. "It makes sense for us to study the technology to see if it's feasible."
But officials wanted to keep their studies quiet. "I assume this info will stay between PNNL and DOE NNSA," said a December 2009 e-mail released last year to the environmental group Friends of the Earth under a public records request. "Just don't want any unexpected press releases about burning mox fuel in (Columbia Generating Station).
Other documents lay out a timeline starting in 2013 with incorporation of a few plutonium fuel elements into the reactor core. The elements would be tested for six years, followed by a phase-up to full operations in 2025. Even then, mox fuel would only make up 30 percent of the reactor core.
Olson said the timeline was theoretical, and is already outdated. All cost estimates were redacted from the released documents, triggering this week's legal challenge.
Some nuclear experts question whether plutonium fuel is significantly more dangerous than uranium fuel. In an accident, it's the easily dispersed isotopes like radioactive iodine and cesium that account for most of the health effects, Makhijani said. Plutonium is heavy and wouldn't be widely spread.
But its toxicity is so high that even small amounts can be dangerous. "Plutonium is nasty stuff and you don't want it in the environment," Makhijani said.
Olson pointed out that the 1,150-megawatt Columbia Generating Station has never experienced a radiation release.
Commissioned in 1984, the plant produces about 9 percent of Washington's electricity. Energy Northwest has applied for relicensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. If granted, the new license would be good until 2043.
Incorporating mox fuel would require a license modification, Olson said.
Because only a small amount of plutonium is left after the fuel is burned, spent rods would not be a target for terrorists intent on making weapons, she added.