The five-year project at the gaseous diffusion plant cost $72 million and took more than a million man hours.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
With a $72 million seismic upgrade completed, USEC Inc. has taken aim on raising the enrichment level of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant by spring.
USEC, based in Bethesda, Md., said the work not only makes the plant more earthquake resistant, but also allows it to boost power when needed. On July 11, USEC signed a 10-year contract with the Tennessee Valley Authority for cheaper, more flexible electricity, which accounts for more than half the plant's production costs. USEC enriches uranium for use in nuclear fuel.
"Because we're consolidating our enrichment facilities, it's important that we be able to produce at higher power," said USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle. "To do that, we must have the seismic modifications."
Last month, USEC announced that the Paducah plant will remain open and be upgraded as a stand-alone facility. Paducah has worked in tandem with its sister plant near Portsmouth, Ohio, which is expected to be closed in a year.
Stuckle said the earthquake work is not directly related to the project to make the Paducah plant independent. That involves making physical and paperwork changes to double the percentage or "assay" of reactor-grade uranium hexafluoride the plant can produce.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which approved the seismic upgrade, has said it will be at least March before the assay work is approved if USEC stays on schedule. Much of the process involves reviewing considerable documentation.
"We're still aiming at March of next year to receive NRC approval and still aiming at completing the physical work by the end of the year," Stuckle said.
The earthquake project took more than a million man-hours to design and do steel support work at 688 locations in two of the plant's four huge process buildings. Together, the buildings cover 46 acres. Two larger production buildings and other structures did not require upgrades because they meet NRC requirements.
General Manager Howard Pulley said the upgrade enables the plant to withstand the maximum earthquake expected once every 250 years.
"I am extraordinarily proud of the efforts of our work force on this time-consuming and often difficult project," he said. "All of this work was performed safely while the equipment in the process buildings was still in operation."
About two-thirds of the project was done by J.S. Alberisi, a nuclear construction firm, and one-third by USEC employees. During peak work, the project involved 240 people removing 3,500 pieces of steel, installing 12,500 pieces, pouring more than 600 cubic yards of concrete and using more than 77,000 pounds of welding materials.
Work began in 1995 after being mandated by the Department of Energy, which leases much of the plant to USEC. Delays resulted when DOE underestimated the scope of the work and later when USEC disagreed with the extent of the upgrade. Still more lags occurred when DOE hazardous and low-level radioactive waste storage areas got in the way of work.