The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration said Tuesday it intends to award BWX Technologies [BWXT] subsidiary Nuclear Fuel Services a sole-source contract to purify highly enriched uranium and convert it into metal for nuclear weapons programs.
The semiautonomous nuclear-weapons steward needs Nuclear Fuel Services to step in around 2023, when the civilian agency plans to shut down existing uranium purification systems in Building 9212 at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee. That is according to a June 25 letter from a National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) official obtained by Defense Daily.
“NNSA plans to partially replace this legacy capability with an electrorefining capability in 2023,” the official wrote. “However, a capabilities gap will still exist for purifying oxides until a future time when another technology, Direct-Electrolytic Reduction (DER), is tentatively scheduled to come online.”
BWX Technologies, through Nuclear Fuel Services, is the exclusive provider of HEU fuel for the Navy’s nuclear-powered warships and submarines. DoE, through the NNSA, maintains and modernizes U.S. nuclear warheads and bombs.
An NNSA spokesperson said bringing BWXT on will “provide NNSA with additional HEU processing capability that would increase the responsiveness and resiliency of the current and future uranium infrastructure during a period of transition at Y-12.”
With Tuesday’s notice of intent, the NNSA and Nuclear Fuel Services can begin negotiating contract terms. Among the to-be-decided terms: the total mass of purified uranium metal the BWXT subsidiary will provide from its Erwin, Tenn., fuel fabrication facility.
Meanwhile, Y-12 management and operations contractor Consolidated Nuclear Security is building the new Uranium Processing Facility to replace analogous World War II-era infrastructure at the site, including Building 9212. The NNSA plans to complete the new facility by the end of 2025, which would be more than a year after the final option period on the company’s contract expires.
Consolidated Nuclear Security is on the job through September 2021, after the NNSA in 2018 picked up a two-year option on the company’s contract. The Bechtel National-led incumbent took over Y-12 in 2014.
The NNSA uses highly enriched uranium for the secondary stages of nuclear weapons, which are refurbished at Y-12. BWX Technologies, then called Babcock & Wilcox, managed Y-12 before Consolidated Nuclear Security.
The NNSA is ramping up work on life-extension programs for all active U.S. nuclear weapons, so Y-12, like the rest of the nuclear security enterprise, will only get busier. In December, Y-12 finished both the last secondary stage for the refurbished W76-1 submarine-launched ballistic-missile warhead and the first secondary stage for the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb.
By 2025, the NNSA plans to crank out the first war-ready W80-4 warhead, which the Pentagon requires that year for the Long Range Standoff Weapon: a next-generation, nuclear-tipped, air-launched cruise missile. The warhead’s secondary stage will need to be ready before that.
The U.S. Senate last year called out the impending HEU supply crunch and urged NNSA to do something about it.
Specifically, the Senate Appropriations Committee told the NNSA to consider all options for averting a shortfall, “including leveraging qualified industrial partners, to … maintain a consistent supply of purified uranium metal and other strategic materials.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) chairs the Senate Appropriations energy and water development subcommittee. Nuclear Fuel Services is one of his constituents.
However, when it comes to HEU, BWXT is the only commercial option in the U.S. The company owns the only two fuel-fabrication plants licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to process highly enriched uranium. The company’s other HEU-capable facility is in Lynchburg, Va.