Oxide conversion nears restart at Y-12

569545-001The Oxide Conversion Facility, a key part of the bomb-grade uranium operations at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, is apparently nearing a restart. Recent history, however, suggests that could be put on hold at any time.

Steven Wyatt, a federal spokesman at the Oak Ridge nuclear defense facility, this week said a recent issues had been resolved. “We are currently performing final checks,” he said. “Operations are planned for the near future.”

Wyatt confirmed that the OCF operated “briefly” in March, and that apparently was the first time the recycling system had been operable in about a year. Details of those operations have not been disclosed, and Wyatt refused to discuss the activities.

According to a March report by staff of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, the Y-12 contractor (B&W Y-12) last operated OCF on March 20, 2012.

“Operators placed the system in warm standby, which negated the need for B&W to perform most surveillances and preventative maintenance activities . . . Nonetheless, production management had planned to keep current with these activities to ease resumption of operations. However, changes in programmatic priorities and available funding late in fiscal year 2012 compelled B&W to forego this approach, making efforts to restart operations more challenging.”

More recently, the safety board staff said — in a May 31 report — that operations at OCF had been put on while engineers at Y-12 addressed “a problem with the programmable logic controller that performs various safety-significant function for fluid bed operations.”

Oxide conversion is an essential part of processes used to recycle highly enriched uranium and get it ready for return to use in nuclear warheads or put on the shelf for other projects. The process converts uranium from an oxide form to uranium tetrafluoride (known as “green salt”), which then goes through a reduction process to form a purified uranium metal.

The safety board staff, in its May 31 report from Y-12, said, “Aside from OCF, (recycling) system availability in Building 9212 has significantly improved this month. As a result, Enriched Uranium Production personnel produced nearly double the quantity of purified UO3 (the feed material for OCF) relative to the quantity produced during the first seven months of the fiscal year combined.”

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.