Plutonium for Energy? Explaining the Global Decline of MOX

Kuperman, Alan J.
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Plutonium is a controversial fuel for three reasons: it causes cancer, may be used in nuclear weapons, and is very expensive to obtain and process. Yet, relatively little information has been publicly available about the attempted commercialization of plutonium fuel around the world in the last several decades. This book is the first comprehensive global study of “plutonium for energy” – the use of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in light-water nuclear power reactors that traditionally had used uranium fuel – and is based on field research in all seven countries that have engaged in the commercial production or use of such fuel. The book finds an industry in rapid decline, as five of the countries already have decided to phase out commercial MOX activities, while five of the world’s six commercial production facilities for such MOX fuel have closed prematurely after underperforming. This retreat is attributed to plutonium’s three inherent downsides – safety, security, and cost – which make MOX fuel significantly more expensive, dangerous, and unpopular than traditional uranium fuel. The book includes chapters on Belgium, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Its introductory chapter highlights the lessons from these historical cases for countries that are currently contemplating the initiation or expansion of using plutonium fuel – including China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

This book emerged from a “Policy Research Project” (PRP) at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin. PRPs are a signature feature of the LBJ School, in which graduate students work with faculty for a year on externally funded research.