Energy secretary Bill Richardson announced plans on 6 October to build a 100,000 swu/year pilot enrichment plant using advanced centrifuge technology in Piketon, Ohio, at the site of an existing gaseous diffusion plant (GDP) that had been scheduled for shutdown in June 2001.
Richardson said that, rather than shutting the GDP plant down, the DoE will maintain it for five years in cold standby until the advanced centrifuge pilot test is completed.
Earlier this year, DoE said it would close the Ohio facility after USEC announced it would cease uranium enrichment operations there in June 2001 and consolidate its enrichment activities at another GDP plant in Paducah, Kentucky. USEC, which leases both GDP plants from the Energy Department, is facing heavy competition from non-US uranium enrichment suppliers. Both GDPs are currently operated at only 25% of nameplate capacity.
Critics immediately charged that the DoE's latest decision was influenced strongly by election-year politics.
Richardson defended the action, saying that maintaining the Piketon plant in cold standby will “further protect US energy security in the event of a significant disruption in the nation’s supply of enriched uranium.
“This action is essential for the long-term security of our nation’s electricity supply, because nuclear power generates 20% of America's electricity,” Richardson said. He also said that it would preserve jobs.
A shutdown of the Piketon facility would have resulted in the layoff of 1200 workers over the next few years. Now, most of the workers will be employed to support the DoE’s standby and centrifuge operations, as well as in environmental clean-up activities at the Piketon site.
Richardson also pledged to report to Congress by December on what steps, if any, the federal government should take to help the US uranium mining and conversion industries, which claim harm the decision in the 1990s to privatise the US uranium enrichment industry.
The five-year centrifuge enrichment pilot project, to be managed by DoE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, will test an advanced centrifuge that DoE and USEC will develop under a $4 million cooperative R&D agreement announced in September.
Initial work on the project will begin next year at the East Tennessee Technology Park in Oak Ridge, where centrifuge test facilities already exist. After one year, the pilot test will shift to Piketon. The new centrifuge will be based on technology developed by DoE in the 1980s, but will incorporate key technological advancements and cost reductions.
USEC will continue to review other technology options for reducing its reliance on the GDPs, which require far more electricity than a centrifuge plant. The company has made a modest investment in Silex Systems Ltd, an Australian firm currently in the early stages of developing a new laser enrichment technology.
USEC had largely abandoned centrifuge technology in the 1990s, when it decided to concentrate on development of the atomic vapour laser isotope separation (AVLIS) laser enrichment process. In June 1999, however, USEC abandoned AVLIS, saying the technology was unproven.