The new process will allow the Paducah plant to complete work once done at the Portsmouth plant.
By Bill Bartleman firstname.lastname@example.org
Upgrading the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant so that uranium can be enriched here to the nuclear-fuel level should be completed by March.
The upgrade is a part of USEC Inc.'s plan to start the shutdown of the Portsmouth (Ohio) Gaseous Diffusion Plant by June.
"The work to complete the higher assay is about 95 percent complete," said USEC spokeswoman Georgann Lookofsky. "The final pieces of on-site work should be done in February."
Since the early 1950s, the Paducah plant has operated in tandem with other plants to enrich uranium to the 5 percent level required for nuclear fuel. Initial enrichment has been performed here to a level of about 2 percent, after which it was shipped to Oak Ridge, Tenn., or Portsmouth for final processing. The Oak Ridge plant closed about 15 years ago.
Physical changes in the plant have been completed over the past three or four years, with the bulk of work in the last six months amounting to paperwork as operating and safety procedures were revised, and employees trained, Lookofsky said.
The new operating and safety procedures are being reviewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Courtney Blanchard, NRC senior resident inspector in Paducah, said USEC is on target for approval of the higher enrichment level by March.
"There has been a lot of communication between USEC and NRC," Blanchard said. "USEC has responded well to our questions and they are on target to be a stand-alone plant by March."
The final step in approval is a review team's visit and evaluation. Lookofsky said the inspection is expected in late February. Once NRC grants approval, she said, several weeks will be needed to build production to reach the 5 percent assay level.
The current plan is to ship the finished product to Portsmouth where it will be prepared for shipment to nuclear power plants. "We have a proposed project to build a shipping and transfer facility in Paducah ... but that is still under review," Lookofsky said. "They are doing a cost-benefit analysis and sometime down the road, they'll make a business decision."
Operation of the Portsmouth shipping and transfer facility takes only a few workers and will not delay plans to close the enrichment operation.