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Electrorefining technology uses electro chemical processes to produce needle-like uranium crystals.
Electrorefining technology uses electro chemical processes to produce needle-like uranium crystals.

NNSA’s Y-12 National Security Complex is one step closer to implementing improved technology to purify uranium at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, site. Y-12’s materials scientists and engineers recently produced the first production-quality uranium metal “button” using the newly installed electrorefining demonstration system.

Many hurdles were cleared during the scale up of this technology, which will lead toward the deployment of the electrorefining process at Y-12.

Geoff Beausoleil
Manager of the NNSA Production Office

The uranium metal button, first produced this September, provides a level of confidence that the electrorefining technology can be successfully deployed in the site’s production work environment. The buttons are used as feedstock for national security related work, including supplying uranium for the U.S. Navy and for research reactors that use enriched uranium fuel to produce radioisotopes for medical use and other purposes.

“Y-12 has successfully recovered and recycled uranium for more than 70 years,” said Geoff Beausoleil, Manager of the NNSA Production Office, which oversees operations at Y-12 and NNSA’s Pantex Plant in Texas. “Many hurdles were cleared during the scale up of this technology, which will lead toward the deployment of the electrorefining process at Y-12.”

Uranium is a critical material in Y-12’s Production operations. The “electrorefiner,” a piece of technology for recovering purified uranium metal from byproducts of the site’s manufacturing, uses an electrochemical processes in molten salts to purify the uranium metal. The end product is purified uranium crystals that are then melted in a furnace to produce uranium buttons of high purity for a variety of purposes and follow-on processing. 

The project has also procured identical electrorefining equipment for its development and production work. This equipment will allow chemical operators to train on and validate the technology using depleted uranium, a less hazardous surrogate material, to prove out the capability of the full-scale production deployment.

Having overcome the impacts of COVID-19 to reach this production milestone, operators will now develop procedures and perform readiness activities before starting production processing.

Y-12 is operated by Consolidated Nuclear Security, LLC, for NNSA.