Reshaping uranium operations at Y-12

beta2e-thumb-619x629-19813.jpgThe electrofining work with highly enriched uranium will take place in Building 9998, which is near the top left of this aerial view of Y-12’s production complex. (NNSA photo)

Federal overseers have given preliminary approval for a new uranium purification facility at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, with a price range between $58.6 million and $76.7 million.

The “electrorefining” project is scheduled to come online in the summer of 2021, and it’s supposed to replace a similar capability in the plant’s 70-year-old 9212 complex, which the government wants to vacate as soon as possible.

The information was revealed in a newly released memorandum by staff of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

The electrorefining technology will be used to purify uranium metal, which is an essential part of the enriched uranium operations at the nuclear weapons plant. According to the memo by safety board staff assigned to Y-12, the electrorefining technique is “analogous” to the existing purification work that’s done inside 9212.

The future purification work will be established in Building 9998, which is part of the sprawling production complex inside Y-12’s high-security Protected Area. Building 9998 is sandwiched between 9212 and Building 9215 (of which it’s considered a part) in the densely industrial area on the plant’s west end.

Electrorefining is one of several projects on the drawing board that are tied to modernization of the national security plant, parts of which date back to the World War II Manhattan Project.

The projects also reflect evolving plans for the multibillion-dollar Uranium Processing Facility. At one time the UPF was envisioned as a huge facility that would encompass virtually all of the plant’s uranium processing activities. The Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency, repeatedly raised questions about technologies being developed for UPF and whether they would be available when needed.

Under revised plans, the UPF will be scaled down to cut costs, although the official cost range has remained at $4.2 billion to $6.5 billion. The revised UPF will feature construction of a cluster of three smaller buildings to support the plant’s production missions with bomb-grade uranium.

The new strategy also takes advantage of existing facilities, such as shifting the uranium purification work to 9998 to accelerate the exit from 9212 — where the integrity of the building and the safety of old equipment are ongoing concerns.

In addition to the electrorefining project, Y-12 is planning to install a “calciner” — a rotating kiln that’s used to convert uranium-bearing solutions to an oxide form — in the 9212 complex. The project is estimated to cost between $36.5 million and $46.4 million. It is supposed to help recycle and remove the inventory of “low-equity” uranium stocks and speed the shutdown of operations at 9212. The calciner is scheduled to come online in 2020.

According to safety board reports, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s uranium program manager in Washington, D.C., has approved “critical decisions” for both the electrorefining and calciner projects at Y-12, paving the way for development and future funding.

It’s not clear if the cost of the projects will be included as part of the UPF’s price tag or funded in Y-12’s annual operating costs.

The NNSA did not immediately respond to questions.


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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.