Are UPF technologies catching up with project plans?

11-0625 copy (2)

Here’s a poster of New UPF Technologies that was put together a few years ago by B&W Y-12. (click to enlarge)

Earlier this month, in a brief chat before an all-hands meeting at Y-12, General Manager Chuck Spencer recited some of the plant’s accomplishments, and he said the “biggest success” of the year was the turnaround on microwave casting. He noted that a year ago, the introduction of microwave casting into the uranium production activities had been fraught with problems.

“It has actually exceeded the metal requirements,” Spencer said.

Indeed, the new technology for melting enriched uranium and casting uranium parts has been getting positive reports of late, and that’s good news not only for the current production activity at Y-12 but its future role in the Uranium Processing Facility.

Microwave casting is one of several new technologies that are being counted on for UPF (to reduce workers hazards, lower life-cycle costs, improve processing, etc.), and its earlier problems were a reason for concern.

About three years ago, in November 2010, the Government Accountability Office came out with a report that was critical of the technology basis for the Uranium Processing Facility. The GAO report, which was titled, “National Nuclear Security Administration’s Plans for its Uranium Processing Facility Should Better Reflect Funding Estimates and Technology Readiness,” said major uncertainties regarding the development of new technologies could cause a lag in construction, affect the cost fo the big project, and create difficulties in the planning process. The report said six of the 10 technologies were not expected to be at a readiness stage by the time construction began.

Indeed, the GAO report was prophetic, at least in part. The fact that tech development lagged behind the building design was one of the things blamed for the mess-up on the original design, which had to be redone because the building — as it was designed — couldn’t accommodate all the needed equipment, etc. One post-mortem report said the lack of maturity with some of the new technologies affected the ability to design the space for them.

Because of the delays in the UPF timetable and the need to get out of the aged 9212 complex as soon as possible, the multibillion-dollar project was subsequently divided into three phases — with the first phase focusing on transferring the uranium work currently done in 9212 to the new UPF. According to a recent report by staff of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, the initial startup of UPF in now scheduled for late 2025. A new plan for transitioning out of 9212 is due by the end of this month from the B&W Y-12-led UPF team, according to the safety board report.

As the project schedule has gotten delayed, that presumably has allowed more time for the National Nuclear Security Administration to make sure its technology base is sound and ready for the startof UPF operations.

The UPF is officially estimated to cost somewhere between $4.2 billion and $6.5 billion but could go even higher according to some analysts.

Over the past couple of months, I have asked the NNSA and its contractor, B&W Y-12, for updates on the status of the 10 new technologies previously identified as part of the UPF planning.

According to NNSA spokesman Steven Wyatt, five of the “critical technologies” are being deployed for Phase One, the operations currently done in the 9212 complex. Wyatt said the UPF team has already demonstrated the viability of these technologies, although an “official and formal” determination of readiness will be done before the project reaches Critical Decision-3.

Actually, there are six technologies in this group, because Wyatt included “special casting” — one of the original 10 technologies promoted for UPF — as part of microwave casting. Special casting is described as “a custom process for casting uranium metal. The process has enhanced safety controls and reportedly improves nuclear safety and reduces the space needed for the operation.

Other critical technologies included in the first phase are:

— Bulk Metal Oxidation — This technology converts bulk uranium metal directly to an oxide without machining to chips. It is supposed to eliminate the chip machining and cleaning operations, as well as reduce worker exposure to hazards.

— Recovery Extraction Centrifugal Contactors — This would replace the current technology to extract uranium for purification purposes using solvent extraction. It would reportedly reduce chemical inventories, as well as reduce the risks of fire and radiological contamination.

— UNH Calcination — This technology would be used to convert bulk “impure” uranyl nitrate (or UNH) into a stable and storable oxide. Would eliminate some of the processing and recovery activities and reduce processing costs.

— Saltless Direct Oxide Reduction — Used to produce buttons high-purity enriched uranium metal by reducing uranium oxide “as opposed to uranium fluoride.” By doing so, it would eliminate the use of high-hazard hydrogen fluoride. Also, “enables imperfect reductions to be easily ground and reduced again.” The technology does not require the use of pressure vessels.

Wyatt noted that some of the technologies are being used in advance of the Uranium Processing Facility.

“In the case of microwave casting and centrifugal contactors, Y-12 has deployed these technologies into the current production environment, and plans are underway to deploy UNH calcination in the near future,” he said via email. “A key goal of the project is to build safety into the design of UPF.  Our goal is to mature all critical technologies to confidently establish a project baseline, support construction, and ultimately allow the safe and reliable operation of UPF. ”

One of the previously identified 10 critical technologies, Infrared Heating, will no longer be needed for UPF, the federal spokesman said. “Infrared heating was removed from the technology development task because the customer requirements have changed and the process is no longer necessary,” he said.

Three other technologies — Agile Machining, Chip Management and Alternate Processing of Pins — are associated with non-9212 work that’s been deferred and won’t be included at UPF until later, Wyatt said.

Asked for details of the processing of pins, Wyatt said, “Technology is used to shape rods to obtain the desired physical properties for component processing. We are not talking about reactor pins, but cannot provide any additional information regarding this work.”

Agile machine would reportedly combine multiple tasks into a single automated process, improve worker safety by limiting exposures, and save time. Chip management is one of the tasks to be done through “agile machining, and it would automatically collect uranium shavings or chips. That is supposed to better protect the workers, eliminating the need to manually handle uranium chips, and reduce wastes.

NEW FEATURE: You can sign up for email updates from Atomic City Underground and receive a notice each time new information is posted. Just put your email address in the box on the lower right of the blog’s front page and follow instructions.





This entry was posted in DNFSB, NNSA, nuclear, UPF, Y-12 on by .

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.