MOX Fuel Shipments Safe and Sound
IN 1999, JAPAN IS PLANNING to start the MOX utilization program,
which involves utilizing MOX fuel —a mixture of uranium
and plutonium oxides— in existing light-water reactors.
MOX fuel is fabricated using plutonium that has been recovered
through the chemical reprocessing of spent fuel. Due to a lack
of facilities in Japan, most of the reprocessing of spent fuel
and fabrication into MOX fuel has been done in Europe, necessitating
its transport back to Japan.
In accordance with the U.S.Japan Agreement for Cooperation Concerning
Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy (U.S. Japan Agreement) , on January
28, 1999, the Japanese government commenced formal consultations
with the U.S. government on a plan for the transportation of MOX
fuel. Under the terms of the Agreement, Japan needs to consult
with U.S. authorities for any shipment containing plutonium extracted
from nuclear fuel originally supplied by the United States for
use in Japan's power reactors. The transportation plan was established
with the cooperation and assistance of the U.S. government. The
MOX fuel in the planned shipment will be used by Tokyo Electric
Power Co. (TEPCO) and Kansai Electric Power Co. (Kansai).
The shipment will be carried out by vessels belonging to Pacific
Nuclear Transport Ltd. (PNTL) , Over the past 20 years, PNTL has
maintained an impeccable safety record, having transported over
8,000 tons of nuclear material over 4.5 million miles without
a single incident involving the release of radioactivity.
International experts rate PNTL vessels to be among the world's
safest, far above conventional cargo vessels. They feature double
hulls to withstand collision damage, enhanced buoyancy to maintain
the ship afloat even in extreme circumstances, dual navigation
and tracking systems, twin engines and propellers, and additional
firefighting equipment, including a hold-flooding system. Moreover,
all ships are certified to the highest safety category "INF3"
code by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) .
The specialized casks are built to standards set by the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The casks are massive, made from
thick forged steel, and weigh around 100 tons, with five tons'
of solid MOX fuel inside. Their security and reliability are carefully
tested, including being dropped 9 meters onto an unyielding target,
immersed in 15 meters of water for at least 8 hours, and fire
tested, where the cask is fully engulfed in 800-degree-Celsius
temperatures for 30 minutes. The casks are able to survive the
pressure of several thousand meters of water.
In addition, the MOX fuel itself is inherently safe and resistant
to the effect of outside elements. The pellets are a hard ceramic,
stonelike material that is so durable that it would take thousands
and thousands of years to dissolve. The fuel rods are corrosion
resistant and are able to withstand the depths of several thousand
meters of water.
A recent study by the Central Research Institute of Electric
Utilities in Japan shows that even by discount-ing the sealing
capacity of a cask on the seabed, the impact on those living near
the incident would amount to one-millionth of natural background
radiation. If such an accident hap-pened in deep waters, the impact
would be equivalent to ten-millionths of background radiation.
The physical protection measures for the MOX fuel shipments meet
the recommendations of the IAEA and the requirements of the U.S.-Japan
Agreement. There will be two PNTL vessels, armed for self-defense,
that will sail in a convoy, each escorting and protecting the
other. Armed officers of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority Constabulary
(UKAEAC) , who have been specially trained to protect nuclear
facilities and materials, will be responsible for protection aboard
the ship. The U.K. government will be responsible for ensuring
the physical protection of the vessel and its cargo during the
On May 11, 1999, the U.S. government officially notified the
Japanese government that the transportation plan fully satisfies
provisions of the U.S.Japan Agreement. It means the U.S. government
endorsed the physical protection measures of the MOX fuel transport
as fully adequate.
One six-gram MOX pellet generates the energy equivalent of a
ton of coal. The energy contained in just three pellets of MOX
fuel is enough to provide all of a family's electricity needs
for an entire year. MOX fuel will pro-vide Japan, a country with
scarce energy resources, with a semi-domestic energy source. Japan
plans to have 16 to 18 reactors using MOX fuel by 2010; 70 will
be operational around the world by that time.