Japan Crisis Intensifies Doubts on Turning Plutonium Into Mox Fuel

On a tract of government land along the Savannah River in South Carolina, an army of workers is building one of the nation’s most ambitious nuclear enterprises in decades: a plant that aims to safeguard at least 43 tons of weapons-grade plutonium by mixing it into fuel for commercial power reactors.Multimedia Interactive FeatureJapan Earthquake and Tsunami MultimediaRelatedOfficial Defends Japan’s Handling of Crises, Saying They Were Unprecedented April 11, 2011Enlarge This ImageShaw Areva Mox ServicesThe sprawling plant, which is being built just south of Aiken, S.C., is intended to be bigger than eight football fields, and its construction currently employs nearly 2,000 workers.The project grew out of talks with the Russians to shrink nuclear arsenals after the cold war. The plant at the Savannah River Site, once devoted to making plutonium for weapons, would now turn America’s lethal surplus to peaceful ends. Blended with uranium, the usual reactor fuel, the plutonium would be transformed into a new fuel called mixed oxide, or mox.“We are literally turning swords into plowshares,” one of the project’s biggest boosters, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said at a hearing on Capitol Hill last week.But 11 years after the government awarded a construction contract, the cost of the project has soared to nearly $5 billion. The vast concrete and steel structure is a half-finished hulk, and the government has yet to find a single customer, despite offers of lucrative subsidies.Now, the nuclear crisis in Japan has intensified a long-running conflict over the project’s rationale.

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