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NRC staff warn agency has cut safety corners at MOX plant

MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility on November 19, 2007 (National Nuclear Security Administration)As the Obama/Chu "Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future" continues to flirt with a "revival" of commercial reprocessing in the U.S. (as by centralizing high-level radioactive waste storage at regional parking lot dumps), safety short cuts at a weapons plutonium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility raise red flags. The supposed goal of commercial reprocessing would be to provide plutonium for just such a MOX fuel fabrication facility, but the agency mandated to protect public health, safety, the environment, and the common defense seems much more concerned about nuclear companies' construction schedules and profit margins.

Two scientists retained by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to oversee the construction of the mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant in South Carolina (pictured left) say the agency took safety shortcuts that seriously jeopardize the project. According to an expose by the news service, ProPublica,  first Alex Murray, the lead chemical process engineer on the NRC review team, and then his replacement, Dan Tedder, a chemical engineering professor from the Georgia Institute of Technology, called out safety problems but were either removed from the job (Murray) or resigned in frustration (Tedder).  The MOX plant is supposed to process left over plutonium pits from the U.S. atomic arsenal into commercial reactor fuel, although no U.S. reactors are designed to use MOX and the utility slated to use it - Duke - has withdrawn from the project.

According to the scientists, as reported by ProPublica: "Work on the facility was allowed to begin, they say, before some of the most essential questions were fully answered. They have been particularly concerned about the danger of chemical explosions, the adequacy of the ventilation and radioactive waste disposal systems and the way the plutonium will be tracked as it is processed."

According to Tedder, the NRC's "primary focus is staying on schedule and not doing anything to delay the applicant, rather than identifying dominant risks and safety issues.”

The NRC has a lamentable track record, called out by Beyond Nuclear staffers for years, of prioritizing industry profit motives over public safety. Needless to say, the NRC has denied the assertions of their former staffers.