27 October 2007

Centrifuge enrichment

So yesterday I had the probably-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit a uranium enrichment facility, in Portsmouth, OH. It used to enrich with gaseous diffusion until the mid-80's when the slump in the industry caused it to shut down. At its peak, it was consuming 2500 MW of power, running up an electricity bill in the tens of millions per month.

Recently a company called USEC has leased the facility and classified centrifuge technology
from the Department of Energy. They have improved upon the centrifuge technology and set up a pilot cascade of about 12. Each centrifuge is about 45 feet tall, and has a capacity of around 350 SWU, around a factor of 10 larger than the european centrifuges. The centrifuges consume 5% of the power of the gaseous diffusion plants per SWU -- the technology level required (even if you had schematics you would still require high-tech materials and precision machining) is much higher than gaseous diffusion.

On the tour we got to see the outside of six of them assembled -- the inside of course is highly classified -- and walk through the building where they will work. (The part where their prototype cascade is built is sealed off from the area in which we were allowed to be escorted. There was a gate at the edge of the property, a fence around the whole building complex near the parking lot where we were badged, a fence inside the giant buildings where the centrifuges were to be housed, and finally the fourth covered fence inside of which only those with a Q clearance could enter.)

So this looks to be pretty promising. The main obstacle is that right now, enriched uranium imports are reduced by protective tariffs that will be disappearing at some point in the near future. It is unclear whether USEC can become operational before and cost-competitive at that time. If they are able to, then they will be making a lot of money, because once the megawatts-to-megatons program stops providing utilities with enriched uranium, and with the likely upsurge in nuclear power brought on by the impending energy crisis, the demand for enriched uranium will guarantee that these guys will be operating at full capacity.


Post a Comment