By Bill Bartleman firstname.lastname@example.org
The United States Enrichment Corp. wants to develop gas centrifuge as the next generation of technology for enriching uranium into nuclear fuel and to deploy the technology at its enrichment plant in Portsmouth, Ohio.
The USEC board of directors recently approved a plan to build a pilot plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to test and refine gas centrifuge technology, which was once the federal government's top choice for replacing the 1940s-era gaseous diffusion process used at plants in Paducah and Portsmouth.
If testing is successful, USEC wants to use a 20-year-old building in Portsmouth that was designed by the federal government for centrifuge production before the technology was abandoned when the U.S. Department of Energy determined that so-called AVLIS laser technology was the wave of the future.
However, years of testing raised questions about whether AVLIS would work in commercial production. AVLIS was abandoned two years ago when USEC, the private company that took over the government's nuclear fuel production in 1997, determined it was too risky and too costly.
Elizabeth Stuckle, USEC communications director, said the company is negotiating with DOE to acquire the rights to the classified centrifuge technology. Also, USEC is negotiating to lease buildings in Oak Ridge where the pilot plant would be located.
USEC is expected to build a 20-unit test plant that would cost about $14 million, according to sources familiar with the project. It could be in operation by the fall of 2001.
Testing could take two or more years, and design and construction of a commercial production facility would take an additional three to five years, according to the source familiar with the project.
Stuckle cautioned that development of centrifuge technology could be abandoned at any time if testing indicates that it isn't feasible or economical. If that happens, USEC would look at other technology used in other countries.
Stuckle said the Oak Ridge pilot project would center on the American centrifuge technology developed by DOE. Also, she said Russian and European technology could be incorporated into the study. Gas centrifuge is used in Russia and by EURENCO, a European consortium that produces and sells enriched uranium at a lower cost than USEC.
In the 1980s, DOE spent almost $2 billion building the centrifuge plant in Portsmouth. The centrifuge units have been dismantled and disposed of, but the building is still standing. It currently is used for storage and other purposes.
A source familiar with USEC's plans said the company wants to design new units that could easily be installed and retrofitted in the Portsmouth building. A new commercial plant would include about 14,000 centrifuge units. The source said millions of dollars could be saved if the existing building could be used.
Stuckle said using the Portsmouth facilities "definitely is a possibility that is being looked at." However, she said no final decision had been made.
Meanwhile, the USEC board is scheduled to meet June 21, and Washington sources say a vote will be taken to close one of the uranium enrichment plants. USEC officials have not confirmed or denied the reports, but Stuckle said the board will continue reviewing cost-cutting measures that include a potential plant closure.
Under the current production method, the two plants work in tandem, with uranium enriched to about 2 percent in Paducah and then shipped to Portsmouth where it is enriched to about 5 percent, the level needed for use as nuclear fuel.
Work is under way to upgrade the Paducah plant so it can enrich up to 5 percent. The work and approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to be completed next year.
Copyright 2000, The Paducah Sun