Since 1945, the United States has enriched uranium at gaseous diffusion plants in Portsmouth, OH, Paducah, KY and Oak Ridge, TN. Initially, this enrichment was for national security purposes. As commercial nuclear reactors came online, the plants also produced low-enriched uranium for fuel. Since 1982, enrichment has been solely for nuclear reactors and industrial purposes.
Depleted uranium hexafluoride (DUF6) is a byproduct of uranium enrichment. It is currently stored in more than 65,000 cylinders at the Ohio and Kentucky sites (cylinders from the Tennessee site were moved to Ohio).
The existing inventory of DUF6 is now more than 800,000 metric tons, all of it generated by the three gaseous diffusion plants.
In July 1998, Public Law 105-204 directed the Secretary of Energy to prepare and submit a plan for construction and operation of plants to treat and recycle DUF6.
The purpose of the facilities is to convert the existing DOE DUF6 inventory stored at the two locations to uranium oxide, a more stable form, for potential reuse or disposal. Hydrofluoric acid is a byproduct of the conversion process and can be recycled for industrial use.
A Request For Proposal (RFP) to find a contractor for the facilities was issued Oct. 31, 2000.
In July 2002, Public Law 107-206 required the Department of Energy to build two facilities, one each in Portsmouth and Paducah, to convert DUF6 to a safer form. It also required all the cylinders in Oak Ridge to be transferred to Portsmouth for processing. In August, 2002, a contract was awarded to Uranium Disposition Services, LLC (a joint venture of Areva, Energy Solutions, and Burns and Roe), to design, construct initially and operate the two plants.
Construction was completed at Portsmouth in May of 2008, and in December of 2008 in Paducah. Completion of construction was a major achievement marking the development of the first new nuclear facilities built in the U.S. from greenfield in several decades (there have been no new construction starts on nuclear reactors since 1977).
The Portsmouth plant received approval to begin Hot Functional Testing in May 2010, and the Paducah plant in September 2010. Hot Functional Testing was created to modify the plant process parameters in a test environment to prove functional performance.
In June 2009, the Department of Energy issued an RFP for a five-year start-up and operations contract for the two facilities.
In December 2010, the Department of Energy awarded the five-year contract to BWXT Conversion Services, LLC (a joint venture of BWXT Technical Services Group, Inc. and URS Energy and Construction) to operate the plants. BWCS met its target of having all lines (three at Portsmouth and four at Paducah) fully operational by Sept. 30, 2011.
The plants are currently moving to sustained operations. Conversion is expected to take up to 30 years in Paducah and 18 years in Portsmouth.