PADUCAH, Ky.–Uranium Disposition Services says its new recycling facility should prevent additional buildup of about 38,000 uranium waste cylinders stored at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, create at least 150 permanent jobs and produce material that can be sold to help the federal government recoup costs.
Starting in 2005, the facility will annually convert 1,500 to 1,700 cylinders of depleted uranium hexafluoride (UF6) left over from enriching uranium for nuclear fuel, said Dick Veazey of Paducah, UDS cylinder operations manager.
The conversion pace of those cylinders, holding a half-million metric tons of waste produced over about 45 years before USEC Inc. was privatized in 1998, roughly equals the number of new cylinders produced yearly by USEC, he said. Although his company’s contract covers only the non-USEC cylinders, Veazey expects the Department of Energy eventually to expand the recycling program to include the new cylinders.
“Our work will mean just about staying even with the newly produced cylinders,” he said. “When you’ve got 38,000 cylinders, you’re going to be in business for a long time.”
Nick Timbers, USEC president and chief executive officer, said there are no current talks with the Energy Department about converting the USEC cylinders. But under a new agreement, DOE is responsible for cleanup of about three years’ worth of USEC cylinders since 1998, he said, adding that well over 95 percent of the cylinders at the plant were stored before USEC took over production.
Last month, the Energy Department awarded a $558 million contract to UDS to build conversion plants in Paducah and Piketon, Ohio, and run them for five years through Aug. 3, 2010. After that, the contract will be re-evaluated. DOE wants all the material to be converted within 25 years.
Veazey, who formerly managed production and cylinder maintenance at the enrichment plant, said DOE cleanup contractor Bechtel Jacobs has made great strides in repainting and otherwise improving the conditions of the cylinders. But many older cylinders are rusted and need replacing, he said.
“We’ll be emptying out some of the worst-case cylinders along with some of the better cylinders,” he said. “We certainly aren’t going to cherry pick just the good cylinders.”
Veazey said better cylinders will be retained and poorer ones cut in half, compacted and shipped to a government-approved disposal site in Utah or Nevada. That process will systematically improve the overall condition of stored cylinders, he said.
In both Paducah and Piketon, UDS plans to create 20 major subcontracting projects for the conversion plants, resulting in 100 to 150 construction jobs. Another 150 to 165 permanent operational jobs — about 60 in management and 90 in crafts — will be created in each community. Fifteen to 20 jobs in each area will be transitioned from Bechtel Jacobs as UDS takes over cylinder maintenance, Veazey said, and the rest will be new jobs.
Veazey said agreements are in place to give the nuclear workers’ union and laid-off USEC workers first rights for the jobs, covering a range from maintenance and operations to engineering to environmental and safety.
“Obviously, people who are familiar with the enrichment plant and familiar with UF6 are the kind of people that we would want to hire,” he said, adding that people with non-nuclear plant supervisory background also will have a chance for jobs.
Permanent craft workers will be paid “prevailing wages” under an agreement with the union, and salaried personnel will earn wages similar to those in the enrichment plant and cleanup work force, Veazey said.
Three firms — Framatome ANP, Duratek Federal Services, and Burns and Roe Enterprises –joined forces to form UDS specifically to bid on the project. Framatome, part of a French consortium, started operating UF6 conversion plants in Germany in 1994 and in Richland, Wash., in 1998. Veazey said the new plants represent “third-generation” technology that has operated safely in the other two areas.
Veazey gave this look at the process:
— The conversion breaks down toxic, slightly radioactive UF6 into uranium oxide and “high-quality” hydrogen fluoride, or HF. Although HF is volatile and caustic, the oxide is “very stable” because it doesn’t react with air and is insoluble in water. Veazey said the process eliminates the threat of having the UF6 in cylinders react with moisture and release HF.
— HF and fluorine are highly priced, readily marketable substances in the chemical industry. But the dark, powdery oxide has few commercial applications, such as in armor-piercing weaponry and radiation shielding. UBS will help sell the HF and look for oxide markets to help the Energy Department pay for part of the approximate $100 million construction costs of each of the facilities.
— Paducah’s conversion plant will be built on about 10 acres near the cylinder yards, directly across the enrichment plant access road from the Energy Department Site Office. The 24-hour facility will have four parallel conversion lines, each with two autoclaves to heat the UF6 — normally a solid resembling rock salt — into a gas to be mixed with steam and hydrogen.
— After a reactor separates the uranium and fluorine components, the fluorine will be stored in tanks for sale to companies. Unless it can be sold, the oxide will be placed into a hopper to be poured into containers for shipment by rail or truck to disposal facilities in the Southwest.