Duke Energy has been forced to abort a test of an experimental fuel assembly at its Catawba nuclear power plant in York County, S.C. after noticing unusual physical changes that can damage the fuel and create a safety hazard.

The Charlotte, N.C.-based company was testing mixed-oxide or MOX fuel, which combines conventional uranium with plutonium from the nation's atomic weapons stockpiles. Duke is participating in a federal Department of Energy program to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium from bombs.

Friends of the Earth and the Union of Concerned Scientists recently discovered that the MOX test, which was scheduled to run for four-and-a-half years, was called off after only three years. Duke notified the NRC in a June 10 report.

In light of the cancellation, FOE and UCS are calling on regulators to end the use of weapons-grade plutonium in reactors. "Congress needs to pull the plug before even more taxpayer money is wasted," said Tom Clements of FOE's Columbia, S.C. office.

The fuel assemblies were produced by the French state-owned company AREVA, which is under fire for its involvement in recent radioactive leaks from French nuclear facilities. The leaks have resulted in water-use restrictions being imposed on farmers and area residents.

FOE and USC raise concerns that the NRC has allowed dozens of AREVA uranium fuel assemblies with the same flaw to remain in other U.S. reactors, including Duke's Oconee in South Carolina, Progress Energy's Crystal River in Florida, Exelon's Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, and FirstEnergy's Davis-Besse in Ohio.
 

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In other nuclear news out of the Carolinas, a watchdog group issued a legal challenge yesterday to Progress Energy's plans to build two new nuclear reactors at its Shearon Harris plant near Raleigh, N.C.

In a filing (pdf) with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network cites unresolved design problems with the chosen reactor model, as well as fire safety and security issues at the existing plant. The group says that approving the new reactors would lead to higher power bills for customers and threaten public safety.

N.C. WARN criticizes the NRC for letting Progress and other companies plan for weaker reactor buildings with less redundancy in safety systems than at existing plants. It also objects to the NRC allowing the new plants to continue stockpiling used fuel rods in water-filled cooling pools at the plants -- a practice the National Academy of Sciences says makes the facilities vulnerable to terrorist attack.

"Progress CEO Bill Johnson has a lot of gall," said NC WARN member Judy Elzinga in a statement (pdf). "His corporation has left the public vulnerable to a radiation accident for all these years while claiming safety is their top priority. Now we find out his new plants would cut corners too."

Earlier this year, Progress applied for a license to add the reactors at the Harris plant. The company has also proposed building two new reactors at a site in Levy County, Fla. about eight miles north of its Crystal River Energy Complex that's home to a nuclear plant and four coal-burning units.