By Joe Walker email@example.com
After "tempered celebration" and with a new lease on life, workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant are back to normal with a goal of having a stand-alone facility by June 2001, plant manager Howard Pulley says.
"The day after the decision was made, we're doing the same thing we were doing a day before the decision was made," he said Thursday. "We have to operate the plant safely. That's our No. 1 priority."
A year from now, the plant's five-decade tandem operation with a sister plant near Portsmouth, Ohio, is expected to end. On Wednesday, parent firm USEC Inc. said the Portsmouth plant will close after the Paducah plant has been upgraded to perform alone.
Using huge compressors, the plants push uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas through miles of piping to separate the useful from the non-useful isotopes. Because the good part, uranium-235, naturally exists at less than 1 percent in uranium, it must be increased or "enriched" to about 5 percent for use in nuclear fuel.
The Paducah plant enriches uranium to about 2.75 percent, and the Portsmouth plant finishes the process. Now the Paducah plant is on an aggressive track to run alone at 5 percent by the time the Portsmouth plant closes. After an anticipated 275 job cuts starting July 14, the Paducah plant should settle into a work force of about 1,300, and there are no more planned severances, Pulley said.
Uranium is mildly radioactive, and because the change adds concerns about an uncontrolled nuclear accident called a criticality, USEC must convince the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that safety systems are in place to protect the workers and the public.
Physical changes scheduled for completion in September involve modifying pumps, tanks and other areas to make them "always safe" in criticality scenarios, he said.
Changes that Pulley says "have no safety significance" are being made to equipment to withdraw the 5 percent product and ship it to Portsmouth. USEC says part of the Portsmouth plant will stay open until about 2005, using a few hundred workers to put the UF6 in cylinders and send them to fuel fabricators. By then, facilities for that work will have been added at Paducah.
Changes requiring NRC approval include evaluations, assessments, procedures and training regarding criticality situations, Pulley said. Although USEC had hoped to have approval by Dec. 31, NRC officials say that won't happen unless the company provides heavy documentation much faster.
USEC has now pledged to have some of the key paperwork to the NRC starting in September, which would make approval probable for March. Pulley said USEC officials are meeting regularly with the agency, which has agreed to do plant-upgrade inspections before September.
"By having them on-site, looking at what we're doing, talking to us about what we're doing, we're still hoping to get approval by Dec. 31," he said. "There are major challenges, as there are with any project of this magnitude, but we have some very technically competent people, and this is a major priority across the whole plant."
Even finishing by March would afford a three-month test period before going into higher assay production, Pulley said. He wants to start enriching at 5 percent before next summer because spiking electricity prices in hot or very cold weather mean idling production.
Power accounts for more than half of production costs, and the plant burns as much electricity as a major city. Paducah produces millions of units of UF6 yearly and each penny per kilowatt-hour adds at least $25 of cost per unit.
For years, Paducah has bought power from the Tennessee Valley Authority and Electric Energy Inc. in Joppa, Ill., at widely fluctuating prices during heavy demand. A long-term contract is expected to be signed soon with TVA to control those costs, a factor that helped persuade the USEC board to keep the plant running.
There are other concerns about getting ready for independent operation. Roughly a $50 million project to make key parts of the plant more earthquake-resistant should be finished by Sept. 30, Pulley said.
Paducah's and Portsmouth's inventory of Freon, which cools the massive equipment, has a life span of about three years. Because Freon had been banned from production, Paducah must find a replacement once the inventory is gone. Pulley said an alternate coolant has been field-tested, and there are deployment plans.
"Within a short period — less than two years, for sure — we could switch successfully from Freon to the alternate coolant," he said.
Pulley said Paducah plant employees have "deep concern" for their counterparts at Portsmouth. But there is no cause for any job losses, because of the vast amount of environmental cleanup work needed once the Portsmouth plant closes, he said.
"For the transition to be successful, I think it's absolutely essential that Congress delegate the appropriate (cleanup) funds to the Department of Energy," Pulley said. "I have a priority of teaming with the Portsmouth plant to make sure that both the Kentucky and Ohio delegations know how serious the situation is."
USEC leases the plants from DOE, which will assume control of the Portsmouth facility when it shuts down.
Despite Paducah's hard work to become independent, USEC is in such financial trouble in a glutted, underpriced uranium market that some want the government to regain control of the firm, after it became private just two years ago. Critics say USEC is a dead-end company because it does not readily have a replacement for aging, expensive gaseous diffusion technology.
That means Paducah may have bought only a few years before facing closure. Pulley said employees ask him about the long-term market outlook, much of which they can't control.
"Significant things can change in a few years. The market for nuclear fuel can change, and a whole number of things can change," Pulley said. "But I believe that by the plant performing safely and efficiently, it will help us basically create our future."