Upgrades planned for Metropolis

12 July 2012

Honeywell is evaluating a series of upgrades for the Metropolis Works uranium conversion plant following the results of inspections on its preparedness for extreme natural disasters.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has been carrying out a program of comprehensive inspections of preparedness for extreme natural phenomena at all US nuclear facilities since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan. At Metropolis, those inspections have been taking place during the plant's annual maintenance outage, which began in May. Annual maintenance activities have now been completed, but owner Honeywell has agreed not to restart the plant until it has reached an agreement with the NRC on the necessary upgrade projects and their timing. The regulator has already ruled that the current plant is operating safely as part of a licence and performance review.

The nature and timing of the upgrades is to be addressed in ongoing discussions with the NRC, and no timeline has yet been set for the restart of operations. According to Honeywell, the upgrades could take 12-15 months to complete, with a reduction of about 50% in the plant's full-time workforce of over 300 employees during that period. Nevertheless, the company says it does not anticipate a negative impact on its previously issued earnings guidance for 2012 from either the suspension of operations or the cost of the upgrades. The plant is continuing to receive uranium ore shipments and make uranium hexafluoride deliveries from inventory.

"Honeywell takes its commitment to safety seriously," said Larry Smith, plant manager for the Metropolis Works facility. "We are continuing to discuss the necessary plant upgrades with the NRC, and we hope to quickly establish a definitive timetable."

The process to enrich uranium in fissile uranium-235 for use in nuclear fuel requires a feedstock of gaseous uranium hexafluoride. Metropolis, in Illinois, is one of a handful of plants around the world where natural uranium oxides are converted into gaseous uranium hexafluoride. Conversion plants handle only natural, unenriched uranium, and are subject to the regulations that are in effect for any chemical processing plant involving fluorine-based chemicals.

Unlike uranium conversion plants operating in Canada, France, the UK, Russia and China which all use wet chemical processes, Metropolis utilises a dry fluoride volatility process. Built in the 1950s, the plant has undergone various upgrades and expansions over the decades to reach today's capacity of 15,000 tonnes of uranium hexafluoride per year. Conversion sales from Metropolis are handled by ConverDyn, a partnership between affiliates of Honeywell and General Atomics.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News