Nuclear Fuel Services, Erwin, Tenn., received a long-expected $57-million contract to design and demonstrate highly enriched uranium conversion and purification for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the agency said this week.

If the BWX Technologies

[BWXT] subsidiary’s pilot meets the agency’s goals, the company could earn a follow-on contract to perform some of the uranium work now handled at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Meanwhile, phase-one work “will begin immediately,” BWX Technologies wrote in its own statement on Monday. The contract runs through Feb. 29, 2024.

The second phase, assuming the semi-autonomous Department of Energy nuclear weapons wants one, would notionally begin after the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) replaces the old wet-chemistry conversion and purification systems in Y-12’s Building 9212 with an electrorefining capability in Building 9215 that will be able to purify uranium metal, but not convert uranium oxides to metal. The swap to 9215 is notionally on the slate for 2023.

NNSA hopes eventually to bring oxide conversion to Building 9215 too, but that will not happen “until about 2030,” well after the agency projects it will finish Y-12’s new Uranium Processing Facility, a spokesperson for the agency wrote in an email Monday. The planned Uranium Processing Facility, scheduled to be finished by 2025, will take over manufacture of nuclear weapon secondary stages from Building 9212, but Building 9215 will keep the uranium purification work.

The NNSA needs purified highly enriched uranium to make secondary stages for refurbished nuclear warheads and bombs. In the 2020s, the agency will be working on four, possibly five, nuclear-weapons refurbs affecting land-, sea-, and air-based weapons.

Nuclear Fuel Services got its contract after about a year-and-a-half of negotiations between the company and the federal government — negotiations that started with an unsolicited proposal and gathered steam in 2019, when the NNSA announced it would sole-source the off-site conversion work, and maybe more, to Erwin.

The City of Oak Ridge has opposed the NNSA’s decision to move uranium work outside of the Y-12 fence almost since the NNSA made the decision, calling the strategy a job killer for the region.

NNSA has said that that isn’t so and said so again on Monday.

“NNSA has maintained close communication with Congress and Tennessee Representative Chuck Fleischmann’s [R-Tenn.] office in the development and execution of this bridging strategy, especially in ensuring that Y-12 will not see a reduction in workforce related to this action,” the agency wrote in its press release announcing the deal.

BWX Technologies — which used to run Y-12 and is bidding on the next NNSA mega-contract to run that site and the Pantex Plant in Texas — also made overtures to the city and Y-12 in its statement.

“We are proud to utilize our existing operational infrastructure, security framework and workforce expertise to provide this bridging capability as Y-12 continues its modernization efforts and role as our nation’s Uranium Center of Excellence,” Joel Duling, BWXT Nuclear Operations Group president, said in the company statement.