If the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) still plans to select its preferred technology for the nation’s next domestic uranium enrichment plant by the end of 2019, the agency is taking the decision down to the last few hours of the year.
It was around this time of year in 2016 that the semiautonomous Department of Energy nuclear-weapon branch formally declared it would begin the acquisition process for a new domestic enrichment capability. The agency told the Government Accountability Office in August 2017 that it would by December 2019 choose between a privately owned technology provided by Centrus Energy Corp., of Bethesda, Md., and a technology developed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
The NNSA hewed to that timeline all through 2018 and 2019, but a spokesperson told Weapons Complex Morning Briefing on Monday that the “NNSA analysis of alternatives is still underway and a decision has not yet been made.”
Centrus is getting a boost in perfecting an all-domestic enrichment cascade of its AC-100 technology under an 80/20 cost-share contract awarded by DOE’s Nuclear Energy Oak Ridge Site Office. The three-year deal is worth about $115 million, including a one-year option. AC-100 is also known as the “large centrifuge” technology that is competing with the Oak Ridge-developed “small centrifuge” in the ongoing NNSA evaluation.
The NNSA’s need to acquire more uranium became less dire in 2018, when the agency awarded BWX Technologies subsidiary Nuclear Fuel Services, of Erwin, Tenn., a contract worth more than $500 million to downblend more than 20 metric tons of the NNSA’s stock of highly enriched uranium into low-enriched uranium suitable for producing tritium in the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar reactors. With that deal, the NNSA expects to run out of low-enriched uranium for tritium production in the 2040s, rather than the late 2020s.
The NNSA spokesperson on Tuesday had no immediate comment about when the agency planned to finish the analysis of alternatives for its next-generation enrichment capability.
Tritium, the radioactive hydrogen isotope, is required for thermonuclear weapons to achieve the destructive yield prescribed by their designers.