March 3, 2000
USEC upgrade sought in Paducah
By Joe Walker
USEC Inc. hopes to have regulatory approval by the end of the year for the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant to enrich uranium independently of its sister plant near Portsmouth, Ohio.
The development carries huge implications for the Paducah plant, whose product now must be sent to Portsmouth to be further enriched for use in nuclear fuel. USEC, which is in big financial trouble, will eliminate about 850 jobs at the two plants starting in July and is considering closing one facility to cut costs.
USEC says it is making the change from an overall company standpoint to improve flexibility and better serve customers. But because of a potential plant shutdown, community and congressional leaders, financial analysts and others have repeatedly said Paducah stands a much better chance of surviving by being able to enrich uranium on its own.
Paducah does the initial work in separating isotopes of uranium for nuclear fuel and ships material to Portsmouth to raise the percentage of reactor-grade uranium, or assay, to a maximum of 5.5 percent. Upgrading the Paducah plant would double its level of enrichment, putting it on a par with Portsmouth.
"We expect all our submittals to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to be in by June," USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said. "We expect to have regulatory approval by the end of this year."
She said roughly one-fourth of the plant work to accomplish 5.5 percent enrichment has been done. The project includes doing a variety of nuclear criticality safety evaluations to be sure the work is safe, changing more than 180 procedures, conducting extensive training, adapting the shipping area and making equipment changes.
To get ready for increased production and power use possible under higher assay enrichment, USEC must make parts of the plant more earthquake resistant to comply with the regulatory commission. But the work has been stalled because it conflicts with off-limits areas of the plant controlled by USEC's landlord, the U.S. Department of Energy, where materials exist that pose what the department says is a remote chance of an uncontrolled nuclear reaction, called a nuclear "criticality."
Thirteen "high-priority" areas include government piles of junk and spare parts from past work at Paducah, Portsmouth and a now-closed enrichment plant at Oak Ridge, Tenn. Last fall, an Energy Department study revealed that the scrap material poses a hazard to workers because it might contain the equivalent of weapons-grade uranium far more radioactive than that used for enrichment.
USEC reached an oral agreement last week with the department to do about $4.8 million in work to assess 10 of the piles' likelihood of a criticality accident.
"This agreement is not for us to clean up these areas, but to characterize them for nuclear criticality safety," Stuckle said. "Some of the work affects our seismic upgrade program. The agreement considers our goal to complete the seismic work by Sept. 30."
Energy Department spokesman Walter Perry said the characterization is under an existing agreement that pays USEC to do such things as maintain grounds and security at the plant. That was better than opening the project for bids, he said.
"We want to make sure we address this problem quickly by using USEC's work force," Perry said. "We can accomplish it faster and more cheaply this way."
The characterization is being done because the investigative team had no assurance that records were in place to know the contents and hazards of the materials, including old pipes, converters, compressors and tubing used for enrichment, Perry said.
"This action is expected to be finished by early July," he said. "It will let us know exactly the radiological contaminants and nuclear criticality issues involved."
Perry said the work does not include cleanup. The department, NRC and
USEC will decide later about storing or removing the material, he said.