The Department of Energy has decided to use a Cold War nuclear weapons cleanup in Ohio to help produce high-purity depleted uranium metal for nuclear weapons programs.
The civilian agency’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) will do that by installing a fourth process line at the depleted uranium hexafluoride conversion facility at the Portsmouth Site near Piketon, Ohio, according to an amended record of decision published Thursday in the Federal Register.
The planned process line will convert depleted uranium hexafluoride into depleted uranium tetrafluoride (DUF4) using “utility equipment and materials identical to those currently in operation” by the DoE’s Office of Environmental Management, which manages depleted uranium hexafluoride processing plants at Portsmouth and Paducah, Ky.
Industry will eventually get a piece of the action.
After DUF4 rolls off the line at Portsmouth, the NNSA will use a commercial vendor — yet to be identified — to process the material, which ultimately will be turned into high-purity depleted uranium metal. Such metal is used to make “parts” for nuclear weapons life-extension programs, and for downblending highly enriched uranium into low-enriched uranium, according to the agency’s 2020 stockpile stewardship and management plan.
The NNSA is downblending its own stock of highly enriched uranium to create low-enriched uranium that can legally be used in commercial U.S. reactors to produce tritium for nuclear-weapon refurbishments.
The Department of Defense also uses depleted uranium for programs unrelated to the NNSA’s nuclear weapons life-extension programs.
The NNSA projects a shortfall of depleted uranium between fiscal years 2029 and 2031, according to the stockpile stewardship and management plan. The agency wants to begin procuring components for the future fourth line at Portsmouth as soon as this fiscal year.
The NNSA’s Material Recycle and Recovery program foots the bill for the high-purity depleted uranium restart. The program is part of the Strategic Materials Sustainment budget line within the Directed Stockpile Work line of the NNSA’s broader Weapons Activities budget. Strategic Materials Sustainment has a roughly $255 million budget for the current 2020 federal budget year: about a 15% raise from 2019, and in line with the White House’s request.
Depleted uranium is a byproduct of uranium enrichment, and DoE has hundreds of thousands of metric tons of it left over from the Cold War arms buildup. The Environmental Management office is converting the material into depleted uranium oxide for disposal or future use, under a contract with the Atkins-led Mid-America Conversion Services. When DoE hired the Atkins-Fluor [FLR] partnership in 2016, the company’s contract called for it to convert a little more than 750,000 tons of depleted uranium hexafluoride.
The Energy Department began depleted uranium hexafluoride conversion at Portsmouth in 2010 and expects to conclude operations in either the early 2030s or 2040s, according to an agency fact sheet.
The Paducah Site has more depleted uranium hexafluoride piled up than Portsmouth: roughly two-thirds of the the total to be processed by Mid-America, according to the fact sheet. The Energy Department started conversion at the Kentucky site in 2011 and expects to finish the job in the mid 2040s or 2050s.