Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor Vol. 24 No. 46
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December 04, 2020

Uranium Purification Pact With BWXT Subsidiary Won’t Cost Y-12 Jobs, NNSA Says

By Dan Leone

The National Nuclear Security Administration on Monday moved to reassure the city of Oak Ridge that moving some uranium purification outside the fence at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge Tenn., will not cost the site any jobs.

The city raised the alarm in a statement issued before the Thanksgiving holiday last week, complaining that a planned early-December contract award to BWX Technologies subsidiary Nuclear Fuel Services — to pilot the conversion and purification of highly enriched uranium (HEU) at the company’s Erwin, Tenn., facility — would result in a “loss of mission and jobs” at Y-12: the manufacturing hub for uranium-powered, nuclear-weapon secondary stages.

“Y-12 will not see a reduction in work scope, or in employment, related to this action” a spokesperson for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) wrote in an email this week to Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor. “NNSA remains fully committed to Y-12 as the Nation’s Uranium Center of Excellence, as evidenced by continued increasing investments including this year’s $2.2 billion funding request for national security programs on the campus.”

Because the deal was not official yet, the NNSA spokesperson declined to provide the terms of the planned contract, which the agency has been negotiating with Nuclear Fuel Services for more than a year. However, the spokesperson said Monday that the deal would “provide a commercial capability to supplement NNSA’s HEU purification process and bridge the gap in conversion capabilities.”

When it announced its intent to sole-source the HEU conversion and purification work to Nuclear Fuel Services last year, the NNSA said it would need the company to step in some time around 2023, when the agency plans to take the existing wet-chemistry purification systems offline at Y-12’s Building 9212 and replace it with electrorefining technology.

The electrorefining technology can purify the needed uranium metal, but not produce it. So, the NNSA will need to rely on Nuclear Fuel Services as a hedge at least until it can install new oxide-to-metal conversion technology inside the Y-12 fence. Direct-Electrolytic Reduction remains “a leading candidate technology” for that work, the NNSA spokesperson said.

However, the agency has not said when Direct-Electrolytic Reduction might come to Y-12. Notionally, the next Y-12 management and operations contractor would install it.

The NNSA did not mention Direct-Electrolytic Reduction by name in the statement of work appended to its solicitation for a new Y-12 and Pantex management and operations contractor. Instead, the agency listed “wet chemistry replacement” and “specific oxide replacement” as tasks for the next contractor, who tentatively will take over on Oct. 1 from Consolidated Nuclear Security, the Bechtel-led incumbent.

With the NNSA preparing to refurbish four nuclear weapons one after the other beginning this decade, the U.S. Senate in 2019 told the agency to use any means possible to avoid running out of purified uranium in the middle of the modernization regimen. Specifically, the Senate Appropriations Committee said the NNSA should be “including leveraging qualified industrial partners, to … maintain a consistent supply of purified uranium metal and other strategic materials.”

BWX Technologies owns the only two fuel-fabrication plants licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to process highly enriched uranium. The company’s other HEU-capable facility is in Lynchburg, Va.

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