Conversion plant will be kept offline

17 October 2012

An order by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has reinforced a voluntary commitment by Honeywell to keep the Metropolis uranium conversion plant offline until post-Fukushima safety improvements are complete.

The chemical plant in Illinois converts uranium oxide powder into gaseous uranium hexafluoride suitable for the enrichment process. In common with all US nuclear facilities, it has been subjected to a post-Fukushima safety review to examine its readiness for extreme external events such powerful earthquakes or tornados. This process uncovered some safety issues not identified in previous regular NRC checks of the plant's operation.

Most significantly, it was found that the amount of material that could be released during an incident at the plant was greater than previously thought. This "could result in a higher risk to the public than originally assumed," said the NRC, which noted that the safety concern was "more of a chemical hazard than a radiation hazard" and has been reduced to zero by the shutdown of the plant. The review also found "two apparent violations" of regulations.

In order to return to operation, plant equipment will need seismic restraints, supports and bracing to maintain safety during earthquakes or very strong winds. Honeywell said in July that installing these, as well as reviewing the site's emergency plan, might take 12-15 months, putting potential restart around July-October 2013. During this time the usual workforce of 332 will be reduced by half.

Metropolis is operated by Converdyn on behalf of the firm's two 50% owners, Honeywell and General Atomics. Honeywell said that the financial impact of the extended shutdown would not affect previously published guidance on earnings per share.

The order issued by the NRC yesterday confirmed that the plant could not operate until the mandated improvements were in place. The plant has been shut down since 9 May, and in July Honeywell committed to keeping it offline until the NRC's requirements were met. The NRC said that this attitude and cooperation from Honeywell was a factor in its decision to issue a confirmatory order, rather than a notice of violation and consideration of a fine.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News