US-based BWX Technologies has been contracted by the US Department of Energy (DOE) to process thousands of kilograms of government-owned scrap material containing enriched uranium into High Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU). The initial award will total $47m, with a total contract value of up to $116.5m, subject to annual congressional appropriations.
HALEU fuel contains uranium enriched to 5-19.75% uranium-235 (higher than the 3-5% typically used in light water reactors). HALEU is required by most of the advanced reactor designs being developed under the DOE's Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. However, currently there is no commercial supply chain to support HALEU production and DOE has launched a programme to stimulate the development of a domestic supply.
The scrap, that is unusable in its present form, will be processed to produce two tonnes of HALEU at BWXT’s facilities located near Lynchburg, Virginia. “The project will clear over two metric tons of scrap material from the Y-12 National Security Complex, contributing to ongoing efforts to reduce the material accountability and inventory totals at the site, while also supporting the Department’s advanced reactor demonstration projects,” said Jeff Chamberlin, Assistant Deputy Administrator for the DOE National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Office of Material Management & Minimisation.
BWXT will produce the HALEU over the next five years, with several hundred kilograms expected to be available as early as 2024.
To support this programme, BWXT plans to hire approximately 20 new operators, engineers and safety personnel at its Lynchburg facility. The final product will be HALEU feedstock in an oxide form at an enrichment level of 19.75%. The scrap material to be provided by the NNSA is currently in a variety of forms and enrichment levels, and it has been collected by the government from a number of different sources, primarily at the Y-12 National Security Complex.
The Y-12 National Security Complex is located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, near the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It was built in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project. The purpose of the Y-12 Electromagnetic Separation Plant was to produce enriched uranium for the first nuclear bombs. The facility now operates as a manufacturing facility for nuclear weapons components and related defence purposes and produces fuel for the US Navy. According to DOE, Y-12 “is a unique national asset in the manufacture, processing and storage of special materials vital to our national security and contributes to the prevention of the spread of weapons of mass destruction”. It is operated by Consolidated Nuclear Security led by Bechtel National. Other members include minority Leidos, ATK Launch Systems and SOC.
Sharon Smoot, President of BWXT Nuclear Operations Group noted the growing interest in for both US national security and clean energy applications. “One of BWXT’s key roles in moving the nuclear industry forward is leveraging its specialty materials capabilities to support domestic HALEU needs for the next generation of nuclear reactors,” she said. “This contract adds to BWXT’s ongoing work with the NNSA to build the company’s HALEU production capabilities in support of converting high performance research reactors from highly enriched uranium to HALEU.”
Image: The Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee