The government has asked the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge to double its production of purified bomb-grade uranium metal to 1,000 kilograms a year –- a milestone that has not been achieved since 1991 and the end of the Cold War.
According to a recently released report by staff of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, top officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration issued the production challenge to Consolidated Nuclear Security, the Bechtel-led contractor that took over management of Y-12 and Pantex, a sister nuclear weapons plant in Texas, in mid-2014.
The apparent driver for the effort is to reduce the amount of “material at risk” in the 9212 uranium-processing complex, parts of which date back to the World War II Manhattan Project and the roots of the US. nuclear weapons program. By processing the stocks to a purified metal form, the uranium would then be “suitable” for transfer from the aged 9212 production complex to another facility – presumably the Highly Enriched Uranium Material Facility, the on-site storage complex that houses the nation’s primary stockpile of HEU. The ultimate goal is to get out of 9212 as soon as possible, transitioning the work to the planned Uranium Processing Facility complex and other facilities.
Increasing production at 9212, however, would appear to be a formidable challenge.
Many of the processes used to recycle uranium scraps and produce purified uranium metal have been subject to equipment breakdowns and failures over the past 20 years and – and according to multiple reports – have operated inconsistently at best. Deterioated conditions, including pieces of the ceiling known to fall unannounced, can make operations a little dicey at times.
“It will be difficult,” Morgan Smith, the contractor’s chief operating officer, said in a brief interview last week at Y-12. “There’s no doubt about that.”
The challenge to increase production at 9212 came via a joint letter from Tim Driscoll, NNSA’s uranium program manager, and Steve Erhart, the NNSA’s Production Office manager, according to the defense board summary of events.
NNSA spokesman Steven Wyatt said he could not release a copy of the letter. “We are not at liberty to discuss the schedules involved in our purified metal production,” he said.
Asked how CNS planned to address the production goal and maintain safety for workers, Smith said, “Well, we’re going to build a balanced plan. We’re going to fairly assess the risk, put in risk-mitigation approaches and then just work it day by day . . . We want to take a circumspect approach to what is the condition of equipment, what are the condition of the facilities, what do we need from a preventive maintenance standpoint to stay out front. Plan that in for the overall picture. Work with the entire team to figure out the best approach and get it done.”
Has CNS accepted the challenge, promised to get it done?
“I think at this point, we’re taking a look, we’re taking on the challenge,” Smith said. “I believe in the end we’re going to say we can do that and will go do that. We’re going to work our way through it.”
Dave Beck, CNS vice president and program integration manager, said, “It’s an important national security deliverable, and we’re going to do our best to meet it, safely and securely . . . do it as efficiently as possible with rad quality.”
Producing 1,000 kgs of purified uranium metal in a year is definitely a challenge, Beck said.
“We don’t have a record of having done that much. We have a plan on how to do it. We believe that plan is good,” he said.
Asked about increasing production with processes that have proved to be inconsistent over the years, Beck said, “We believe we have a reasonable chance to do that. It’s not a sure thing. But it’s like any big challenge we take on. We think we’re up to it. And we’re going to make a good try at it, do our best.”
Asked if it were consistent to reduce the material at risk at the same time increasing production at 9212, Beck responded, “Well they’re not inconsistent. It’s a more efficient way of doing business. Every business is trying to minimize their in-process inventory. That’s about eliminating waste from the process.”
Beck characterized at-risk material as the material that is out on the floor, in processes, as opposed to what’s kept in a vault.
Wyatt provided a description of processes used at Y-12 to produce purified enriched uranium metal:
“The processes we use at 9212 that ultimately result in uranium metal begin with chemical processing in the form of wet chemistry and metal production. These chemical processes purify HEU and convert it to an oxide or metal. Wet chemistry consists of bulk reduction operations, dissolution, leaching, evaporation, and primary and secondary cycles of solvent extraction. The product from wet chemistry is the oxide UO3. In the Oxide Conversion Facility, the UO3 is reduced to UO2 with hydrogen and subsequently converted to UF4 through hydrofluorination in successive fluidized bed reactors. The UF4 is then converted to metal buttons using a thermite reaction with calcium and lithium.”
During his visit to Y-12 last week, NNSA Administrator Frank G. Klotz, said the effort was important to the eventual goal of getting out of 9212.
“One of the things that we’re attempting to do is reduce the material at risk that currently goes through 9212 by improving the processes and how we move things through the facility,” Klotz said. “So that maybe we can eliminate some steps in that process, move things from Point A to Point B without having to go through Point C. That’s doing two things for us. It’s reducing the total amount of material at risk in 9212 and it’s also paving the way for us to get out of 9212.”
Isn’t it difficult to increase production at a facility that’s already been identified as having safety concerns?
“Well, this is a tough business,” Klotz said, “and this is a challenging business. And it always has been since the very beginning. You know the history of this facility very, very well. But we think that the team that’s here, both the federal and the M&O partners, are up to the task.”
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