This cylinder hauler at Paducah’s Babcock & Wilcox Conversion Services plant delivers the first of DOE’s 14-ton depleted uranium cylinders to USEC for re-enrichment as part of a five-party agreement that is extending enrichment operations at the 60-year-old plant for another year, delaying increased costs at the site for DOE.
This June marks the start of work to feed about 1,100 14-ton cylinders filled with depleted uranium tails into the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
PADUCAH, Ky. – On this Friday, June 1, the first of about 1,100 14-ton cylinders filled with depleted uranium tails will be re-fed into the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, officially marking the start of a project that will extend enrichment operations there for a year.
The project is the result of a complex agreement struck this month among DOE, plant operator the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC), Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Energy Northwest (EN) and the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA).
“I am proud to have been a part of an agreement that helps the workers, community and electric ratepayers in Energy Northwest and TVA regions while avoiding cost to DOE and ensuring a supply of nuclear fuel essential for national security missions,” Portsmouth Paducah Project
Office Manager Bill Murphie said. “This has been the most complicated agreement I have worked on in over 30 years with DOE and it took a lot of committed professionals across many organizations coming together to pull it off in such a short time.”
DOE is providing tails material to EN, which has contracted with USEC to re-enrich the tails into low-enriched uranium. EN will utilize a portion of the low-enriched uranium for its Columbia Nuclear Generating Station near Richland, Wash. and will sell the remainder of the U.S.-origin low-enriched uranium to TVA for use in its reactors, including those used to produce tritium for the National Nuclear Security Administration. TVA will supply the power to operate the Paducah plant for the re-enrichment project. BPA purchases electric power from EN.
The transfer of depleted uranium to EN will benefit U.S. national security and the Department’s cleanup missions. In addition, it provides commercial benefits to the other parties in the agreement. For example, the potential benefits to DOE from transferring the depleted uranium include the reduced costs of producing tritium through alternative methods, as well as the costs that were avoided by needing to maintain the facility in safe shutdown for one less year than would have otherwise been necessary.
USEC notified DOE last December that it might be forced to begin shutting down the 60-year-old gaseous diffusion plant at the end of May 2012, when its previous power contract with TVA was set to end. A combination of climbing power prices, aging technology and a Separative Work Units (SWU) market depressed by the lingering nuclear effects of the Japanese earthquakes and tsunami, posed an economic challenge to USEC and set the stage for the publicly-traded subsidiary of USEC Inc. to begin the process of de-leasing portions of the plant back to DOE. SWU is a unit of measurement applied to the enrichment process.
The potential value contained in a relatively small subset of the nearly 40,000 DOE tails cylinders stored at the site offered a temporary solution, helping protect the 1,200 USEC jobs at Paducah and delaying DOE’s need to increase its investment in maintaining and security the huge facility. These high-assay tails contain a somewhat greater percentage of the valuable U-235 isotopes than do the others, enough to justify a second trip through the enrichment process before they re-join the other tails waiting to be processed as waste at the depleted uranium conversion facility.
Over the course of the year, USEC will feed the contents of the 1,100 tails cylinders directly into the plant, placing them inside large autoclaves where they will be heated, turning the solid contents into a gas that will move through a series of the converters where the U-235 isotopes are separated from the more numerous U-238, finally emerging from the process in a dual stream of low-enriched uranium and re-depleted uranium tails.
Continuing operations of the plant will provide an extra year for EM to plan for the eventual decommissioning and cleanup of the plant.