Monday’s announcement from U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, (R-OH), regarding the possibility of re-firing the Piketon centrifuge facility, closed in 2016, was met locally with a mix of appreciation and skepticism.
Judging from the comments on several websites, the announcement also grabbed at least a modicum of national attention.
The most vocal criticism came from Piketon Village Councilman Dennis Foreman, an outspoken critic of the Department of Energy’s ongoing construction of a permanent on-site waste disposal facility on the property of the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
Foreman argued the timing of Portman’s announcement was suspicious, possibly a smokescreen to draw attention away from continuing opposition to the waste disposal facility, characterized by that opposition as a nuclear waste dump. Foreman pointedly noted Portman’s announcement said there is an “intention” to bring back the centrifuge facility but there are no guarantees the plant actually will reopen.
Among other concerns, Foreman said the $115 million promised by Portman and DOE is a proverbial drop in the bucket compared to what might be needed to get the centrifuge plant up and running again. He added he expected to be blasted for opposing bringing jobs to the area but noted the 60 jobs mentioned in Portman’s announcement would do little to replace the 1,800 potentially lost when destruction and demolition of the gaseous diffusion plant is completed. Foreman noted the plant’s private contractor only recently asked 70 employees to accept voluntary separation.
For his part, Piketon Mayor Billy Spencer was a bit more positive.
“On the surface of it, it’s fantastic news,” Spencer said, adding he supports anything bringing jobs to Piketon. At the same time, Spencer said he and village officials will continue their opposition to the on-site waste disposal facility. He added the village is still considering legal action to force DOE to reopen the record of decision (ROD) which allowed construction of the on-site waste disposal facility.
Like Foreman, Spencer expressed what he called skepticism at the timing of Portman’s announcement. Spencer also wondered out loud whether the 16 centrifuges planned at this point are sufficient to demonstrate Piketon’s ability to produce high assay materials.
“It’s a start,” Spencer said. “But I am dubious you will ever actually see it.”
“This announcement of DOE’s intent to invest $115 million over the next three years was an important first step in the effort to return domestic uranium enrichment to Piketon,” Portman said in an emailed comment to the Daily Times, responding directly to the comments of Foreman and Spencer.
“This project will help the economy of Pike County,” Portman continued, “by adding 60 new, good-paying jobs and having a domestic source of enriched uranium is critical to both our national security and energy security needs. The ongoing cleanup of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant is a completely separate issue, but it is just as important for both the workforce and the future of the DOE site in Piketon.”
Portman bragged he was proud last year to be able to obtain funding to ensure cleanup of landfills and plumes at the diffusion plant site.
“I will continue to work with my colleagues and the administration to secure the funding necessary to get the site cleaned up and ready for redevelopment,” Portman concluded.
DOE’s intent to reopen the centrifuge plant was advertised on a federal contractor site.
“The Nuclear Energy Oak Ridge Site Office (NE-ORSO) of the (DOE) plans to contract with American Centrifuge Operating LLC (ACO), a subsidiary of Centrus Energy Corp., for the demonstration of high assay low enriched uranium (HALEU) production to support DOE research and development activities and programs,” the announcement reads in part.
The announcement goes on to state the demonstration project has two primary objectives: deployment of a 16-machine cascade producing enriched product by October 2020; and, demonstration of the capability to produce high assay low enriched uranium with existing U.S. origin technology and providing DOE with a small quantity of high assay materials beginning in 2020 for use in its research and development.
The federal website notes the project is being awarded to ACO without competitive bidding as they are the only company capable of completing the demonstration project in the opinion of DOE. The website further states the period of performance for this award is expected to be January 2019 to December 2020, with a one-year option.
According to the website of World Nuclear News, low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel used in today’s nuclear power plants typically contains less than 5 percent fissile (an atom or element able to undergo nuclear fission) uranium-235 (U-235), but many advanced reactor designs currently under development will require fuel enriched to between 5 percent and 20 percent U-235, also known as HALEU fuel.
Centrus described the proposed demonstration as “very good news” for the entire US nuclear industry.
“If America wants to be competitive in supplying the next generation of nuclear reactors around the world, we need an assured, American source of high-assay, low-enriched uranium to power those reactors. We stand ready to work with (DOE) to get the proposed project under way as quickly as possible,” the company told World Nuclear News.
There are currently no US-based facilities capable of producing HALEU on a commercial scale and the US Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) last year called for work to begin to develop a national fuel cycle infrastructure to support the operation of the advanced reactors.
WNN describes itself as a public information service of the World Nuclear Association.