Fight over Duke Energy Fuel Test Pits Security, Disclosure

Question arises of where security of information should meet public's right to know

MOX fuel is a joint U.S.-Russia effort to reduce the amount of weapons-grade plutonium stored globally. The fuel blends plutonium with enriched uranium, the usual fuel for nuclear power plants. Duke, which expects to save money on government-subsidized fuel, is the only U.S. utility thus far to agree to use MOX.

Some folks in Tega Cay, the community that sits just across Lake Wylie from the Catawba plant, are worried, said Mayor Bob Runde. But most people who attended a public meeting on MOX last year, he said, seemed to sense little increased danger from the new fuel.

"I thought the biggest danger involved was they had to take this (plutonium) to Europe" to make the test fuel, Runde said. "As far as the burning of it here, it's insignificant compared to what we already do now."

Blue Ridge argues that Duke should not be granted the exemptions it has requested from some security measures for protecting the MOX test fuel.

Those measures, such as maintaining a tactical response team and erecting additional physical barriers, are tailored for facilities that handle plutonium. Duke says the safeguards it already has in place perform the same functions.

"We don't think this is an attractive (terrorism) target at all," Nesbit said. "But we've made our preparations based on the fact it could be."

In May, the NRC staff found that Duke has toughened its security to protect the MOX fuel. The exemptions Duke seeks are legal and won't pose undue risks to public safety, the staff said.

The commission has allowed Blue Ridge's attorney and technical expert, who have low-level security clearances, access to some material on condition they don't divulge the information.

But the NRC ruled that the group can't see the details -- such as the size, training and weaponry of an attacking force -- of the terrorism that plutonium-handling facilities are expected to thwart.

Without that information, the group says, it doesn't know what security standard the NRC expects Duke to attain.

"In effect, the commission has tied one hand behind our backs," said Diane Curran, Blue Ridge's Washington attorney.

"It's just not a good way to problem-solve, to blindfold somebody and let them feel the elephant in a few places and describe what it is. You can make a guess, but it's not the same as seeing it."