Operations start at US deconversion plant

13 September 2010

Operational testing has begun at a new plant in Ohio to convert the depleted uranium hexafluoride (DUF6) left over from uranium enrichment into uranium oxide. Meanwhile, enrichment company Urenco has agreed to assist with the licensing and permitting process for a new deconversion plant in New Mexico.

The start of operations at the deconversion plant at the US Department of Energy's (DoE) Portsmouth site in Ohio was marked at a ceremony attended by Daniel Poneman, the US deputy energy secretary, and Ted Strickland, the governor of the state of Ohio. The plant has been built by Uranium Disposition Services (UDS), a joint venture of Areva, Energy Solutions and Burns and Roe, and will convert 13,500 tonnes of DUF6 per year. It is to operate until 2037. Operational testing is expected to continue until November 2010.


  "This facility transforms 
 product of the past
  into a 
product of our

  Ted Strickland
  Governor of Ohio

DUF6 is a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process. Over the years, very limited amounts of depleted uranium have been used in different countries for applications such as blending down ex-military high-enriched uranium for nuclear fuel use or blending with plutonium to make mixed oxide fuel, or for uses exploiting its very high density. However, most DUF6 has been stored at the enrichment sites where it was made. Over fifty years of operations at the gaseous diffusion enrichment plants at Portsmouth and Paducah, Kentucky, gave rise to nearly 700,000 metric tons of the material that was kept in storage at the sites. In 2002, DoE contracted UDS to build facilities to deconvert the DUF6 into uranium oxide, a more chemically stable form of uranium that is more suitable for either disposal as waste or possible re-use.

Work began on the Portsmouth deconversion facility in 2004, and physical construction was completed in 2008. UDS expects to complete its sister plant at Paducah within the coming months.

Ohio governor Ted Strickland welcomed the new plant and the 160 jobs it would create in his community. "This facility transforms a product of the past into a product of our future," he said. Meanwhile Energy Solutions president and CEO Val Christensen described the facility as "an environmentally important step in the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle and advances the United States' nuclear energy capabilities."

Urenco to help with permitting

As the Ohio facility started its operational testing, International Isotopes Inc announced that enrichment company Urenco USA has agreed to help it through the process of licensing and permitting the deconversion plant it wants to build in New Mexico.

Idaho Falls-based International Isotopes wants to build the plant near Hobbs, New Mexico, to convert DUF6 into uranium tetrafluoride which it will then use as a feedstock for its own patented fluorine extraction process and the manufacture of high-purity fluoride products. It has already received DoE approval for the first part of its application for a federal loan guarantee to help build the facility and even has a provisional contract in place to provide deconversion services for the Urenco USA centrifuge enrichment plant.

International Isotopes president and CEO Steve Laflin said his company would benefit from Urenco USA's "considerable" experience with NRC licensing and State of New Mexico permitting. The company remained confident it would be able to support the completion of the NRC review in a timely fashion.

The agreement will see Urenco USA perform a detailed review of the integrated safety analysis (ISA) that was submitted to the NRC by International Isotopes as part of the licensing process and work with the company in the preparation of New Mexico state permits.

Laflin said he anticipated Urenco USA's experience and expertise would help the company to lower costs and avoid possible schedule delays related to licensing issues during the construction phase. "This agreement gives us an additional level of confidence in our ability to complete our required licensing in a timely fashion and contain our future operating costs related to licensing to the greatest extent practical," he said.

Researched and written

by World Nuclear News

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