Usec has been issued a licence by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to construct and operate a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant at its Portsmouth site near Piketon, Ohio.
The enrichment process increases the concentration of the fissionable uranium isotope (U-235) in order to produce nuclear reactor fuel. The licence, which is valid for 30 years, includes authorization to enrich uranium up to an assay level of 10% U-235.
The facility, known as the American Centrifuge Plant, is modular by design and plant output can be expanded as required. The plant will use gas centrifuge technology based on a design developed by the US Department of Energy but with design, material and manufacturing improvements. Usec has been manufacturing and testing individual machine components at its site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Usec submitted its licence application to the NRC in August 2004. The NRC staff published an environmental impact statement in April 2006 that concluded there would be no significant adverse environmental impacts that would preclude granting a licence. A three-judge Licensing Board of the NRC's independent Atomic Safety & Licensing Board Panel conducted hearings in March 2007 to consider whether the staff's environmental and safety reviews were adequate. The Licensing Board issued its initial decision on 13 April authorizing staff to issue the licence.
The Lead Cascade is expected to be operational by mid-2007, and Usec is now working towards starting commercial operation in late 2009, ramping up to 11,500 machines providing about 3.8 million SWU capacity by 2012. Costs for the new plant are estimated at $2.3 billion.
The American Centrifuge Plant is only the second major nuclear facility to be licensed in the USA in the past 30 years under the NRC's licensing process for uranium enrichment facilities. Louisiana Energy Services (LES) received a licence from the NRC in June 2006 to construct and operate the National Enrichment Facility (NEF) in Lea County, New Mexico. Operations at the plant are scheduled to begin in 2008, reaching full capacity of 3 million SWU per year in 2013.
"With plans underway for more than 30 new reactors around the country, a stable, domestic source of enriched uranium is vital," said John Welch, Usec president and CEO. He added, "Utilities should also be encouraged by the NRC process for reviewing the American Centrifuge Plant licence as they prepare to move forward with their own licensing efforts for new nuclear reactors."
* SWU, or Separative Work Unit, is the unit used to measure the energy required to separate uranium-235 from uranium-238.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
WNA's Uranium Enrichment information paper
WNN: USEC revises costs, capacity and schedule for enrichment plant