Duke Energy's contract to buy nuclear fuel made from bomb material has expired, leaving the government with a $4.8 billion fuel-making plant under construction with no takers for its product.
Duke was the only U.S. utility in line to use the mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel and had tested it at the Catawba nuclear plant on Lake Wylie. The federal government had selected Duke to put MOX into regular use, along with conventional fuel, at Catawba and its McGuire plant on Lake Norman.
Mixed-oxide fuel contains a small percentage of weapons-grade plutonium taken from retired nuclear warheads. Its production is part of a government plan to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium, keeping it out of enemies' hands.
Duke signed a contract in 1999 with Shaw Areva MOX Services, the company that will supply the fuel. Duke was renegotiating the terms of the contract when it expired Dec. 1, said Duke spokeswoman Rita Sipe.
"A lot of things have changed since 1999," Sipe said, among them concerns about obtaining a steady fuel supply for Duke's plants.
Production of MOX at the federal Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C., has been plagued by budget problems. Under Duke's original contract, MOX would be produced in 2007. With the production plant only 15 percent complete, the current schedule is 2017.
Sipe also cited a tightening market for uranium, which is used in conventional and MOX fuels.
She said Duke is still interested in talking with Shaw Areva MOX Services. A Shaw Areva spokesman couldn't be reached Monday.
"They should have showed they have customers before they built that plant," said Tom Clements of Friends of the Earth, which opposes MOX production. "There's a lot of smoke going on, and I just want transparency."
The National Nuclear Security Administration, the Department of Energy agency overseeing MOX, said the lapsed contract won't hurt the program. Duke and other utilities have expressed interest in using the fuel, said spokesman Darwin Morgan, and the eight years until production begins will allow time to negotiate contracts.
Advocacy groups that oppose MOX say the federal program is not worth the billions of dollars spent on it. They say surplus plutonium should be "immobilized" in glass rather than turned into fuel.
"Things are happening just as we imagined years ago," said physicist Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "For a utility to tie up its fortunes with the Department of Energy is just asking for trouble."
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