The Paducah plant has been authorized to produce reactor-grade nuclear fuel, instead of stopping short of that.
By Bill Bartleman firstname.lastname@example.org
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission authorized the higher production level on Monday in amending the plant's operating certificate. The change, which had been expected, was approved after 18 months of review and testing.
Until now, reactor-grade fuel has been produced in two stages, requiring work at both the Paducah and Portsmouth, Ohio, enrichment plants. The Paducah plant enriched the uranium up to 2.75 percent and then sent it to Portsmouth for enrichment to the maximum 5.5 percent level needed in nuclear power plants.
With Paducah capable of operating on its own, the Portsmouth plant can be shut down in June by USEC Inc., which operates the plants under lease from the U.S. Department of Energy.
The gaseous diffusion process involves heating uranium hexafluoride to a gas and pumping it through a membrane with tiny openings that separate the uranium isotopes. The gas that escapes through the membrane barriers becomes enriched.
Increasing the production level involves technical changes in the way the uranium is fed into processing equipment, and slowing the speed at which it passes through the barriers, said Georgann Lookofsky, USEC spokeswoman at the Paducah plant.
She said nuclear reactors require uranium to be enriched to a level of 4 percent to 5 percent. She said production levels will be based on customer needs.
"We are very pleased that the NRC has once again demonstrated its confidence in the Paducah facility and our operating team with this certificate amendment,” said Morris Brown, vice president of operations. “This positions the company to move forward with our business strategy to consolidate current enrichment operations at Paducah and to continue to increase efficiencies and reduce costs.”
The NRC rejected a request by several members of Congress to delay the approval in an apparent effort to keep the Portsmouth plant open. The NRC said it had no reason to reject the amendment because Paducah met all requirements for the new permit, including new safety procedures and training.
"Preparing for this upgrade has been a complex and challenging task for the plant's managers and employees," said Howard Pulley, Paducah general manager.
Lookofsky said reaching a maximum 5.5 percent enrichment level should be completed by late April.