The National Nuclear Security Administration has decided to use a cleanup facility in Ohio to help produce high-purity depleted uranium metal for nuclear weapons programs.
The semiautonomous Department of Energy weapons agency will do that by installing a fourth process line at the depleted uranium hexafluoride conversion facility at the Portsmouth Site near Piketon, Ohio, according to an amended record of decision published last week in the Federal Register.
The NNSA will fund the work through the DOE Environmental Management Office’s depleted uranium hexafluoride conversion contract with Mid-America Conversion Services: the Atkins-led team that also includes Fluor and Westinghouse, an NNSA spokesperson said by email Thursday. The line is slated to be up and running by Sept. 30, 2022, the spokesperson said.
The work would be done by 2036, along with the Environmental Management office’s depleted uranium hexafluoride conversion mission at Portsmouth, the NNSA spokesperson said.
The planned process line will convert depleted uranium hexafluoride into depleted uranium tetrafluoride (DUF4) using “utility equipment and materials identical to those currently in operation” at the Environmental Management office’s depleted uranium hexafluoride processing plants at Portsmouth and Paducah, Ky.
The NNSA will then contract a commercial vendor to process the DUF4, which ultimately will be turned into high-purity depleted uranium metal, the amended record of decision says.
Consolidated Nuclear Security, the prime contractor for the NNSA uranium hub at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., will subcontract out the DUF4 conversion work, the NNSA spokesperson said. The company is currently evaluating “[o]ptions for commercial vendors.”
The final metal product is used to make “parts” for nuclear weapons life-extension programs, and for downblending highly enriched uranium into low-enriched uranium, according to the agency’s 2020 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan.
The NNSA is downblending its own stock of highly enriched uranium to create low-enriched uranium that can legally be used in commercial U.S. reactors to produce tritium for nuclear-weapon refurbishments.
The NNSA projects a shortfall of depleted uranium between fiscal years 2029 and 2031, the 2020 stockpile stewardship plan says. The agency wants to begin procuring components for the future fourth line at Portsmouth by Sept. 30, 2020.
The NNSA has its eye on about 1,155 depleted uranium hexafluoride cylinders from both Portsmouth and Paducah that, the agency spokesperson told Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor, “met the selection criteria for conversion to DUF4.”
The planned fourth line will “have the capability to process approximately 250 metric tons of DUF4 per year,” the spokesperson said.
The NNSA’s Material Recycle and Recovery program foots the bill for the high-purity depleted uranium restart. The program is part of the Strategic Materials Sustainment budget line within the Directed Stockpile Work line of the NNSA’s broader Weapons Activities budget.
Strategic Materials Sustainment has a roughly $255 million budget for the current 2020 federal budget year: about a 15% raise from 2019, and in line with the White House’s request.
Depleted uranium hexafluoride is a byproduct of uranium enrichment, and DOE has hundreds of thousands of metric tons of it left over from the Cold War arms buildup. The Environmental Management office is converting the material into depleted uranium oxide for disposal or future use, under a contract with the Atkins-led Mid-America Conversion Services. When DOE hired the Atkins-Fluor partnership in 2016, the company’s contract called for it to convert a little more than 750,000 tons of depleted uranium hexafluoride.
The Energy Department began depleted uranium hexafluoride conversion at Portsmouth in 2010.
The Paducah Site has more depleted uranium hexafluoride piled up than Portsmouth: roughly two-thirds of the total to be processed by Mid-America, according to a fact sheet published in 2018. DOE started conversion at the Kentucky site in 2011 and expects to finish the job at some point from 2044 to 2054.