Centrus Energy Corporation has a $15 million project to prepare K-1600, a building in the middle of the historic K-25 “footprint,” for demolition.
On Tuesday, Centrus announced that it had received a work authorization from the U.S. Department of Energy for decontamination and decommissioning (D&D) work at the building. The work will include removing and disposing of equipment and materials to make K-1600 non-radiologically contaminated and non-possessing (i.e. unclassified), a press release said. The work will occur between October 1, 2018, and September 30, 2019.
After the work is completed, DOE will be able to turn over K-1600 to a contractor to demolish it, the press release said. It’s one of the last remaining “legacy structures” on the 2,200-acre site of the World War II-era K-25 uranium enrichment plant, now known as the East Tennessee Technology Park, the press release said.
Many other buildings have been demolished there, including the five large gaseous diffusion buildings once used to enrich uranium for atomic weapons and commercial nuclear power plants. ETTP is now being converted into a large industrial park in west Oak Ridge.
“Decontaminating and decommissioning K-1600 is part of a larger effort by DOE to clean up the site so that it can be re-used for commercial and industrial purposes by the local community,” the press release said. “Centrus recently completed similar work at its 120-machine demonstration cascade in Piketon, Ohio, finishing on schedule and under budget.”
In the press release, Centrus said it has leased K-1600 from DOE since 2002. It has used the facility to test and demonstrate the world’s most advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges, the company said.
Formerly known as USEC, the company has had other operations—centrifuge manufacturing, engineering, and design—at a separate Oak Ridge building, the Technology and Manufacturing Center off Centrifuge Way near South Illinois Avenue. Centrus said it obtained a license from the State of Tennessee earlier this year to allow for future testing activities at TMC. That means the company can consolidate its future centrifuge development efforts at a single, Centrus-owned facility, and it eliminates the need to keep using K-1600, the press release said.
“As we consolidate our centrifuge work into our own facility, this work authorization for K-1600 allows us to help the Department meet its timetable for returning the East Tennessee Technology Park site to the community for re-use and economic development,” said Daniel B. Poneman, Centrus president and chief executive officer. “The new D&D work builds on our recent successful effort to D&D our Ohio facility, advancing our strategic objective to continue to leverage our unique technical capabilities to diversify our business.”
In a phone interview Tuesday, Centrus spokesperson Jeremy Derryberry said the company intends to re-install the K-1600 equipment at the Technology and Manufacturing Center, but a date hasn’t been finalized.
K-1600 had several test stands, which are large steel structures that can accommodate American Centrifuge machines that are more than 40 feet tall. Workers can monitor the machines during operations, Derryberry said. The TMC off Centrifuge Way has steel structures in place for those stands, Derryberry said.
The testing in Oak Ridge has involved improvements to the AC100, a U.S. gas centrifuge uranium enrichment technology that Centrus operated in a demonstration cascade in Piketon, Ohio. The gas centrifuge technology is much less energy-intensive than gaseous diffusion, and it uses about 1/20th the electricity, Derryberry said. The technology is also modular, meaning it can be “built out” as needed and capacity can be added, Derryberry said.
The gas centrifuges include a steel casing and a carbon fiber rotor spinning at high speed. Uranium hexafluoride gas is pumped through the centrifuge as the rotor spins. The lighter uranium-235, which is fissionable and can be used in nuclear reactions, separates from the heavier uranium-238 and is more concentrated in the center of the centrifuge. One stream of gas is pumped in, and two are pulled out.
The uranium is more enriched each time through a machine and progressively enriched through what is known as a cascade. There were 120 machines at Piketon. That would be a building block for a plant; a commercial plant could have 12,000 centrifuges, Derryberry said.
The AC100 demonstration was considered successful when it was shut down in Ohio in 2016 after meeting performance requirements, Derryberry said. Since then, Centrus has taken time to continue to improve the technology, wanting to reduce costs and increase reliability, he said.
But right now, the commercial market won’t support a new enrichment plant, Derryberry said. After the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011 led to three nuclear reactors melting down at a plant in Fukushima, Japan shut down its entire fleet—more than 10 percent of reactors at the time—and that has reduced demand, Derryberry said. The prices for enriched uranium have come down substantially since then, he said.
But DOE still wants to develop a domestic source of enriched uranium, and Centrus is working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a DOE lab, on that project. That’s important because enriched uranium can be used to help produce tritium for use in nuclear weapons and to power naval nuclear reactors.
“Centrus continues to discuss with DOE the additional development, testing, and demonstration work on U.S. uranium enrichment technology for future use by the U.S. government for national security purposes,” the press release said.
Centrus, which supplies nuclear fuel and services to the nuclear power industry, currently has two primary enriched uranium supply contracts. One is with Tenex in Russia, and the other is with Orano in France. There is also leftover inventory from a gaseous diffusion plant in Paducah, Kentucky, that was shut down in 2013 because of cost, Derryberry said. It was the last U.S. plant operating, after gaseous diffusion operations shut down decades ago at the K-25 site in Oak Ridge and at Piketon in 2001.
Besides its supply contracts and leftover inventory, Centrus also gets enriched uranium by purchasing inventories that become available on the market, such as when a nuclear reactor shuts down, Derryberry said.
He said the D&D work at K-1600 won’t affect Centrus employment or programs. The company is doing other work as well, Derryberry said, using skills that it already has, including advanced manufacturing technology and engineering and design.
Derryberry cited, as an example, a memorandum of understanding between Centrus Energy and X Energy LLC that was announced in September 2017. It is a potential collaboration to possibly produce fuel for advanced nuclear reactors. The two companies are expected to put together a business plan for the fuel fabrication business and work toward the development of a fuel fabrication facility that could possibly be in Oak Ridge.
K-25 and other Oak Ridge sites, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Y-12 National Security Complex, were built during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project, a top-secret federal program to build the world’s first atomic weapons. The K-25 “footprint,” the slab area where the building used to be, is part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. The park includes Oak Ridge; Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico. There are efforts to preserve the history of K-25, including with a history center, equipment building, and viewing tower.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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