MOX in the Netherlands: Plutonium as a Liability

Alan J. Kuperman

This chapter assesses the belated introduction of plutonium-uranium, mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in the Netherlands’ sole nuclear power reactor in 2014, at a time when most other countries that had used such fuel in thermal reactors were phasing it out due to economic and other concerns. Field interviews were conducted in the Netherlands in 2018 with officials from the nuclear regulatory agency, the reactor operator, the nuclear-waste facility operator, and non-governmental organizations. The chapter finds that for the first 45 years of Dutch nuclear power, using traditional low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel, the spent fuel was exported for reprocessing, but Dutch utilities later paid for other countries to take the separated plutonium. In 2006, France changed its environmental law to require that reprocessing contracts specify in advance the disposition of the plutonium to be separated, but foreign utilities were no longer interested in being paid to take Dutch plutonium because they either were phasing out MOX fuel or already had a large surplus of plutonium. The Dutch utility EPZ considered halting reprocessing, so that its spent fuel would be directly disposed as waste, but instead opted to continue reprocessing and to initiate partial use of MOX fuel. This decision was not made on economic grounds, as the utility failed to engage in price negotiations for direct disposal of spent fuel. By signing long-term contracts for reprocessing, MOX recycle, and disposal of waste from reprocessing – which carry severe financial penalties for cancelation – the utility has effectively deterred the government from shutting the reactor prior to its scheduled closure in 2033. In practice, MOX fuel has proved to be substantially more expensive than LEU fuel, especially as uranium prices have plummeted by 80 percent. The Netherlands was the first country in 15 years to initiate commercial use of MOX fuel in thermal reactors, and it may well prove to be the last.