Downblending of bomb-grade uranium on target for Erwin

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF

   A plan to reduce the Department of Energy's stockpile of weapons-grade uranium by turning it into low-enriched fuel for Tennessee Valley Authority's Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant is on its way to becoming a reality with issuance of a Record of Decision on TVA's Final Environmental Impact Statement.
   The decision, which was published Nov. 19 in the Federal Register, found there would be no adverse environmental impact from downblending 33 metric tons of HEU, or highly enriched uranium, at Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. in Erwin.
   TVA and DOE signed a memorandum of understanding in 1997 to investigate commercial use of "off-spec" HEU. TVA then requested proposals in 1998 from commercial fuel vendors to provide services. A consortium made up of Framatome-Cogema Fuels of Lynchburg, Va., Siemens Power Corp. of Richland, Wash., and NFS submitted the best proposal. Framatome and Siemens later merged into Framatome ANP. TVA then initiated negotiations with DOE and the Framatome ANP/NFS consortium to complete the project, resulting in TVA's decision to enter into agreements with DOE and the consortium.
   Tony Treadway, NFS media relations, said the consortium worked on the project six years prior to awarding of the contract. "It's all moving at the scheduled speed of what it was intended to do. ... We're building a high-enriched downblending facility that's going to take it to a low-enriched state. And then we're building a relatively large manufacturing facility that will turn it into a low-enriched uranium oxide."
   NFS is designing the facility which is still in the pre-construction phase. Construction costs are estimated at more than $40,000. The highly enriched uranium processing facility will be constructed inside the fenced NFS complex while the low-enriched manufacturing facility will be built outside the fenced area between NFS and Studsvik, a leading Swedish nuclear company which treats certain wastes for utility companies operating nuclear reactors to generate electrical power.
   Treadway said the uranium oxide will be sent to Framatome's Richland facility in Richland, Wash., and turned into nuclear fuel pellets. The pellets will be loaded into fuel rod assemblies at either Framatome ANP's Lynchburg, Va., or Richland, Wash., facilities for use by TVA at one or more of its reactors. The program calls for deliveries of fuel rods to TVA reactors to begin in 2005.
   "The TVA program will convert about 12 tons currently stored in vaults at DOE's Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge. The remainder of the 33 total tons is currently stored at Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.," according to Treadway.
   Steven Wyatt of DOE in Oak Ridge said the agency considers itself on target for HEU shipments to NFS to begin in June 2003.
   Although the record of decision estimates 105 new jobs will be created at NFS, Treadway said some of those positions will be absorbed as NFS completes other work. "It will generate new jobs, but will it generate 100 brand new jobs? Probably not."
   NFS currently is working on license amendments required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Treadway said.
   Craig Beasley of TVA's Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Muscle Shoals, Ala., said TVA and DOE have had a memorandum of understanding since 1997 to blend down the uranium to the level that it can be used in a power reactor. At a March 28, 2001, board meeting in Muscle Shoals, it was recommended that the TVA board give the chief nuclear officer or his designee authority to enter into an interagency agreement with the Department of Energy.
   "This agreement would be to use the highly enriched uranium blended down to low-enriched uranium" to fuel Browns Ferry, Beasley said. "It will benefit TVA and DOE by reducing DOE's stockpile and giving us fuel."
   TVA currently is seeking public comment on a draft supplemental environmental impact statement regarding its proposal to extend the operation of Browns Ferry Units 2 and 3 and, possibly restarting Unit 1, which has not operated since it was severely damaged by fire in the late 1970s.
   Renewal of the licenses would permit TVA to continue operating the units an additional 20 years past their current 40-year life expectancy. The supplemental environmental impact statement examines potential impacts of restarting Unit 1 and increasing the power output by up to 20 percent.
   Jim Robert, who is in charge of the low-enriched uranium project for TVA, said DOE will provide the HEU and the natural uranium blendstock in the form of uranium trioxide.
   "All DOE had was uranium hexafluoride (UF6), so they're giving us the UF6 and we'll use that in our other reactors like we normally do," Robert said. UF6 is a gaseous form of uranium which has been enriched -- in this case, at U.S. Enrichment Corp.'s facility in Paducah, Ky. The enriched UF6 "is sent to the fuel fabricators who convert it to powder to make the fuel pellets," Robert said.
   The highly enriched uranium which will move along interstate route to NFS is at an enrichment of about 60 percent Uranium 235 (U-235), or bomb-grade uranium.
   "We need to get it down to under 5 percent to use in our reactors," Robert said. "When you have one part at 60 percent, you have to blend it with about 15 parts of natural uranium, which is less than 1 percent."
   The 33 metric tons will have to be blended with about 460 tons of natural uranium to bring it down to around 4 percent enrichment before it can be used as reactor fuel.
   "That's a lot of product you end up with," Robert said.
   Turning the surplus uranium into fuel is estimated to save TVA about 20 percent on fuel costs. "It also saves the U.S. taxpayers, DOE and the government money."
   Since President Clinton declared about 135 metric tons of HEU surplus in 1995, a good bit of that has been blended down and sold in lieu of mining and milling commercial uranium, Robert said. When DOE first studied options for dealing with the surplus, one alternative identified was to blend it to less than 1 percent U-235 and then convert it to a powder and bury it as low-level radioactive waste, Robert said.
   "You'd end up with 2,500 metric tons of material if you did that, and to do that, the same process of blending and converting and disposing it would cost the government about $1 billion over about a 10-year period. The amount of money they're spending to facilitate us using it is about $400 million, so there's about a $500 million to $600 million savings to the taxpayer by doing it this way," he said.
   The government has other stockpiles of HEU that have not been declared surplus, Robert said. "As we 'demilitarize' over a number of years and sign these treaties with Russia where we reduce the number of weapons on either side, that will be material which potentially could be used either in our program or other programs with other utilities."