US to revive enrichment project

10 January 2019

The US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Nuclear Energy Oak Ridge Site Office (NE-ORSO) announced on 7 January that it plans to award a contract to American Centrifuge Operating (ACO), a subsidiary of Centrus Energy, for the demonstration of high assay low enriched uranium (HALEU) production.

The project will see the deployment of a cascade of centrifuges at Piketon in Ohio, the site of the former American Centrifuge Project demonstration uranium enrichment plant which was closed in February 2016.
The HALEU Demonstration Programme envisages the deployment of a 16-machine cascade producing 19.75% uranium-235 enriched product by October 2020. It aims to demonstrate the capability to produce HALEU with existing US-origin enrichment technology to provide DOE with a "small quantity" of HALEU for use in research and development and other programmatic missions. The contract is expected to run from January 2019 to December 2020, with an option for a further year.

ACO is the only source capable of executing the contract activities to meet the programme's requirements, the DOE said in a notice of its intent to place the contract published on the US Government's Federal Business Opportunities website. Only US-origin technology can be used to produce HALEU for use in any type of advanced reactor application, whether civilian or defence-related, according to the notice. DOE also requires the contractor to be both US-owned and US-controlled.

ACO and Centrus Energy both meet the ownership and control criteria and ACO’s AC-100M is the only US-origin uranium enrichment technology which can be used to fulfil the project. ACO already has a US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licence that would enable it to meet DOE's schedule for the demonstration. It also subleases a facility from the DOE at Piketon, the notice added.

The operations at  Piketon which ended in 2016 were intended to demonstrate the long-term performance and reliability of US-developed centrifuge enrichment technology in preparation for commercial deployment at the American Centrifuge Plant. The facility had been testing and developing centrifuge technology for more than a decade but was de-funded by DOE at the end of 2015. A period of decontamination and decommissioning followed and the centrifuge machines were removed from the building while work on the technology shifted to Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  NRC had issued a construction and operation licence for the commercial plant in 2007.

Ohio Senator Rob Portman said DOE intends to invest $115 million in the HALEU enrichment project over the next three years. He said, "Getting Piketon back to its full potential benefits the skilled workforce here, the surrounding local economy, and strengthens national energy and defence security."

There are currently no US-based facilities that can produce HALEU on a commercial scale.  The US Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) last year called for work to begin to develop a national fuel cycle infrastructure to support the operation of the advanced reactors. Its president and CEO Maria Korsnick yesterday said the HALEU pilot project demonstrated the DOE's "continued confidence" in the success of advanced reactors and new fuel options for the existing fleet.

X-energy, an advanced nuclear reactor design and TRISO-based fuel fabrication US company welcomed DOE’s initiative.  Dr Pete Pappano, X-energy's vice president of fuels production said "The production of HALEU by a domestic supplier using US-developed technology addresses a major gap in the existing supply chain for next generation fuel facilities that supply advanced reactors."

To deploy Generation IV reactors, many of the designs require a stable and reliable source of fuel utilising HALEU. X-energy's Xe-100, a 200MWt (75MWe) high temperature gas-cooled pebble bed reactor employs 15.5% enriched uranium.

The announcement integrates with X-energy's plan to design, license, and construct the TRISO-X Fuel Fabrication Facility (FFF); a cross-cutting facility capable of supplying numerous advanced reactor designs with fuel. X-energy has started design and pre-application activities with the NRC, and plans for an operational facility in 2023-2024.


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