April 1st, 2011 12:41 pm | by NATHAN GILLES News | Posted In: Activism, Environment, Tech

Hanford Gets MOXY?

With the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex fresh in their minds, about 100 people filled a hotel ballroom last night to question a small group of engineers and government officials in charge of cleaning up the Hanford nuclear reservation.

"State of the Hanford Site" meetings like last night's at the Red Lion Hotel in North Portland are held once a year by the three government agencies in charge of the Hanford cleanup in eastern Washington. Anti-nuclear and environmental activists fear that Hanford, now closed to new nuclear waste, could once again become a dumping ground. And they raised concerns at the prospect of Hanford’s operating nuclear power plant—the Columbia Generating Station—perhaps, like reactor No. 3 at the Fukushima Daiichi, start using a fuel containing plutonium to power its reactors.

The plutonium-containing fuel, known as MOX, or mixed oxide fuel, is about 95 percent uranium and 5 percent plutonium. MOX is currently being looked at as a potential fuel source by the nuclear power industry. But activist groups, like the Seattle-based nonprofit Heart of America Northwest, say MOX is potentially more dangerous than conventional uranium fuel.

Heart of America Northwest has received documents under a Freedom of Information Act request that the nonprofit says shows Energy Northwest, the company that runs the Columbia Generating Station, secretly talking with the Department of Energy concerning the use of MOX.

Gerry Pollet from Heart of America Northwest says his group received a series of heavily blacked out documents including emails between the DOE and Energy Northwest. “Some of the documents,” says Pollet “reveal that the staff new full well how dangerous the use of plutonium fuel is.” 

Energy Northwest spokesman Mike Paoli says his company hasn’t hid anything, and has openly stated its interest in MOX fuel since the mid 1990s. Paoli also says his company has no plans to use the fuel at this time.

“We see the potential in MOX,” says Paoli. “But, it has to be studied first.” To this end, Paoli says his company is talking with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory about a feasibility study of the fuel. Plutonium isn’t new to Hanford. The site processed the plutonium used in the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, and continued to process plutonium for weapons throughout the Cold War. 

Today, Hanford—which overlooks the Columbia River—houses nine former nuclear reactors, several nuclear fuel processing facilities, as well as remnants from nuclear submarines. Since 1989, responsibility for its cleanup has gone to the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Ecology.

There is a moratorium on new waste at the facility until 2020. 

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