Twenty people — including concerned citizens and some environmentalists — spoke out Thursday against a proposed effort to burn fuel made with weapons-grade plutonium at TVA’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant near Athens.

More than 60 people attended a three-hour meeting and public hearing at Calhoun College Aerospace Center. The hearing was a chance for people to tell the Department of Energy their impressions of the proposal and to try and convince Tennessee Valley Authority officials not to pursue it.

“Plutonium is one of the most dangerous agents known to mankind,” said Garry Morgan, a retired Army expert on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons development from Scottsboro. “Using MOX in a commercial nuclear reactor is compounded insanity.”

He said Browns Ferry certainly isn’t the place to try the fuel based on its safety record.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has cited Browns Ferry for poor performance in the past, including Unit 1, which received a “red finding.” Plant closure is the only thing lower.

The proposal

Before the hearing, Sachiko McAlhany, a DOE document manager, summarized the environmental impact statement  (the plan for disposing of plutonium) for the audience.

The Department of Energy is proposing to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium left over from Cold War missiles plus 13 metric tons of plutonium already stored at its Savannah River site in South Carolina. To achieve this, the DOE is already allowing the French company Areva to build a $6 billion MOX fuel fabrication plant at the Savannah River site designed to turn the plutonium into mixed oxide fuel pellets or MOX pellets. The pellets — which contain 95 percent uranium oxide and 5 percent plutonium oxide — would be trucked and used as fuel in the TVA’s Browns Ferry and Sequoyah reactors. Of the various options for disposal of plutonium the DOE says the MOX fuel option is the agency’s “preferred alternative.”

Of the 60 or so who attended the public hearing, 20 signed up to speak against the measure. Others came to listen or to answer questions before the hearing. 

TVA’s stance

A manager of nuclear communications Ray Golden attended the meeting but did not speak. He told The News Courier before the meeting that TVA had not made a decision on MOX fuel. He said three things had to happen before it would consider it:

1.) TVA would have to determine that the transportation and burning of the fuel would be safe;

2.) The Nuclear Regulator Agency would have to license the operation;

3.) TVA would have to be sure that MOX fuel would be substantially cheaper than the uranium oxide currently used — hundreds of thousands of dollars cheaper. Golden also said 2018 would be the soonest Browns Ferry could use the fuel.

Opposition

Those opposing the proposal at Thursday’s meeting cited safety concerns and the high cost to taxpayers.

Morgan said MOX fuel has a higher fail ratio than the uranium oxide currently used in commercial reactors. He said there were other reasons to oppose the proposal:

1.) The potential of theft and diversion of plutonium by workers or those transporting it;

2.) The threat of terrorist attack;

3.) The taxpayers are paying for a facility to benefit the commercial nuclear industry.

He advocated using glass logs for disposal rather than burning MOX fuel in commercial reactors, as did opponent Gretel Johnson,  founder of Mothers Against Tennessee River Radiation.

“This boondoggle of mixed oxide re-circulating it into the environment and the risk factors of plutonium itself … there is no reason to have MOX fuel because it does not … remove plutonium,” Johnson said.

She said the average nuclear plant has 1,000 times more nuclear impact (radiation) than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

“This is a dangerous way to get your lights turned on,” she said, receiving applause from many in the crowd. Solar power, she said, is the way to go.

“This is a public health issues, and MOX’s risks seem to far outweigh its benefits,” Johnson said.

She added that Browns Ferry “has enough problems,” there is no reason to put MOX in an aging reactor.

Sara Crossfield of Tanner, opposes the MOX fuel because of its risk to the environment, particularly since Browns Ferry is located on karst topography, or land subject to sinkholes, she said waving a topographic map of the area while standing at the podium.

Crossfield was determined to be heard. When she exceeded her allotted time limit, she asked if her husband, Roy, could forfeit his allotted time to her. The moderator said the rules prohibited this. Another man who had signed up to speak also offered to give Crossfield his time, but the moderator, again, declined.  As Crossfield walked to her seat in the auditorium, she vowed that she and others would be heard.

Ruth Hart, a concerned citizen from Limestone County, offer a brief and succinct statement of her opposition.

“Considering the safety of Browns Ferry, why would you ever consider putting that fuel out here,” she said. “That’s ridiculous.”

Tom Safer, with the Tennessee Environmental Council, chastised TVA leaders for missing with the MOX proposal and pushed them to shoot a little higher.

“This is a classic government boondoggle,” he said, citing problems at Rock Flats Nuclear Plant. “This is a government handout to big business in a big way.”

He noted that other utilities have lost interest in MOX, with the exception of TVA. 

“Renewable energy and energy efficiency can really do it,” Safer said. “Eighty percent of our electricity by 2050 will be through renewable energy. TVA needs to lead the way.”

He encouraged residents to contact the TVA board, which is currently looking for a new chief executive officer, and tell them they want TVA to move in a different direction.

Oral and written comments submitted to the DOE Thursday will be presented in the final environmental impact statement issued by the DOE and released in 2013.

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