The cylinders are not of any commercial use now, but a use may be found one day. Paducah would be involved in the conversion.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
The U.S. Enrichment Corp., a USEC subsidiary, has joined CH2M Hill, a national environmental firm, to form Oak Ridge, Tenn.-based American Conversion Services to seek the work from the Department of Energy, which owns the plant. DOE plans to award a contract by Aug. 1 to build conversion facilities at Paducah and its sister plant at Portsmouth, Ohio. The Ohio plant is scheduled to close in June.
In 1998, Congress passed a law earmarking $373 million and requiring DOE to build facilities at each plant to recycle about 50,000 cylinders — roughly 14 billion pounds — of spent uranium hexafluoride, or UF6. Most of the cylinders are at Paducah; others are at Portsmouth and a closed enrichment plant at Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Depleted UF6 is hazardous and contains low-level radiation. It has no established commercial use, but the facilities would convert the waste to safer material while commercial applications are developed.
The law requires the facilities to be running by 2004. Some past estimates have shown each plant would employ 100 to 200 people, depending on the level of government involvement.
To bid for the conversion work, USEC teamed with CH2M Hill, which has extensive cleanup experience. Hill was a chief contractor for DOE a decade ago in efforts to characterize groundwater and other contamination at the Paducah plant.
Speaking in Paducah in January, USEC Chief Executive Officer William Timbers said the firm was aggressively looking for work outside its customary field of uranium enrichment. USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle repeated that stance Thursday, when asked about the recent USEC bid.
"While strengthening our enrichment business is our first priority, we're also seeking new business opportunities, such as bidding on the conversion of depleted uranium," she said. "That would mean a conversion plant in Paducah, and we believe we're best suited for that work."
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, who sponsored the 1998 legislation, repeatedly accused DOE of foot-dragging on the project until late last year. At his regular news conference Thursday, McConnell said he will meet Tuesday with new Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to discuss Paducah plant environmental funding. He declined to speculate on the significance of the new proposals.
Others submitting bids for the conversion work by the March 1 deadline:
--Foster Wheeler Environmental Conversion Services of Oak Ridge, formed by BWX Technology Services, British Nuclear Fuels and Foster Wheeler Environmental Corp.
BWXT, a leading uranium processor, is a partner with Bechtel National to manage a nuclear weapons plant at Oak Ridge. British Nuclear is a nuclear fuel processor that recycles DOE scrap nickel in Oak Ridge. Foster Wheeler, a New Jersey-based environmental firm, lost a bid with two other firms to be the lead environmental contractor for DOE at Paducah a few years ago.
--Jacobs-Cogema of Oak Ridge, formed by Jacobs Engineering Group and Cogema.
Jacobs is a partner with Bechtel National in Bechtel Jacobs, which beat Foster Wheeler and others to become the Paducah plant's lead environmental contractor. Cogema, a French firm, is a world leader in nuclear fuel services and already operates conversion facilities.
--General Atomics, a nuclear services firm in San Diego. It joined Honeywell for a pilot conversion facility a few years ago at Metropolis, Ill., where Honeywell runs a plant that makes raw product for USEC. A consortium of General Atomics and Texas Pacific Group unsuccessfully bid about $1.5 billion to buy USEC Inc. in 1998 before USEC was privatized.
--Uranium Disposition Services of Oak Ridge, formed by Framatome ANP
(Advanced Nuclear Power) Richland, Duratek Federal Services, and Burns and Roe Enterprises.
Framatome, of France, is a world leader in nuclear reactor production. Duratek, a Maryland firm, has advanced nuclear waste disposal technology. Burns and Roe is a New Jersey-based architectural and engineering firm.
David Fuller, president of the Paducah plant's atomic workers' union, said the proposals show progress for work that had seemed too bogged to be realistic.
"It's been a pet project of ours for what's turned into a long time now," he said. "We're very, very happy to see at least indications that this is ready to move forward. We're hopeful that a winner will be selected in early August and funding will be available to move right into the construction phase."
Fuller called the work a "centerpiece" to help offset some of the hundreds of layoffs at the plant in the past three years as USEC struggles financially. Regardless of the winner, the union will seek the same wages, benefits and seniority rights that it has with USEC, he said.