By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
A new agreement between USEC Inc. and the U.S. Department of Energy will provide at least a year of research into gas centrifuge as a possible cheaper replacement for the outdated, expensive technology used by the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
Terms call for USEC to spend $4 million to boost research and DOE to provide the setting — the Oak Ridge (Tenn.) National Laboratory operated under governmental contract by the University of Tennessee and Batelle Corp.
The project will employ 12 USEC workers, 10 USEC subcontract people and the equivalent of seven full-time Oak Ridge employees. USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said it is too early to say if any of the workers will come from Paducah.
DOE will oversee the one-year project, which, depending on the findings, could be lengthened or expanded if public money becomes available, she said.
"Essentially, we're leasing the rights to (DOE) technology and their facilities," she said.
The study will help determine the feasibility of a centrifuge plant in the United States. Meanwhile, USEC will keep studying centrifuge technology that has been used by foreign uranium enrichment plants for many years, as well as a new, laser-based technology known as SILEX, she said.
The agreement allows USEC to use DOE facilities and expertise "at no cost to the taxpayer," according to a release from William Magwood, director of DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology. "However, under this arrangement, the public will benefit from any advances to the technology made by USEC."
The work includes the designing of centrifuge parts; refurbishment and restart of facilities to make, assemble and test the components; and project planning and assessment.
Gas centrifuge uses about one-third of the electricity of gaseous diffusion. The Paducah plant and its sister plant near Portsmouth, Ohio, each uses power comparable to that of a major city, and electricity accounts for about half of production costs.
USEC has reportedly entertained building a pilot centrifuge plant at Oak Ridge and then a commercial start-up facility at the Portsmouth diffusion plant, which will be closed next summer. In 1985, before USEC was created, DOE pulled the plug on a new centrifuge plant at Portsmouth just as it was ready to open.
While that facility was being built, DOE decided it was cheaper to abandon centrifuge in favor of research toward another laser-based technology called AVLIS. USEC, which succeeded DOE as manager of the enrichment plants, stopped research of AVLIS last year, saying it was not cost efficient.
The centrifuge equipment at Portsmouth was removed 15 years ago. Stuckle declined to say if the building gives Portsmouth an edge over Paducah for the eventual construction of a centrifuge plant.
"Certainly, one of the options for locating a centrifuge plant would be the building at Portsmouth," she said. "But that's merely an option at this point."
Last week, Richard Miller, Washington-based policy analyst for the enrichment plants' atomic workers' union, predicted increased DOE involvement in centrifuge research within a few days. Without a replacement technology, USEC's financial status is dire, as reflected by a new Nuclear Regulatory Commission report, he said.
The study, which has not been made public, said USEC does not plan to have gas centrifuge on line until 2009, Miller said, quoting sources who had read the report. But that might be too late, because USEC is not expected to be profitable beyond 2003 unless dramatic measures — possibly including closing the Paducah plant, too — are taken, he said.
First District U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, said last week that he wasn't sure USEC will invest in centrifuge without DOE involvement.
Earlier this year, USEC asked the department for $50 million to build the pilot centrifuge plant, a $1.2 billion loan guarantee to finance the start-up plant, and permission to use the Portsmouth building, which would save USEC $300 million. The project would also cost DOE $150 million to transfer the building to USEC.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson responded with a letter asking USEC to justify the need for centrifuge help and why the company abandoned AVLIS after the government had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in research.