United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission - Protecting People and the Environment

Gas Centrifuge Enrichment Facility Licensing

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Gas Centrifuge Enrichment Process

The gas centrifuge uranium enrichment process uses a large number of rotating cylinders in series to enrich uranium in its U-235 isotope. These series of centrifuge machines, are interconnected to form cascades. Please see the Licensing Reviews Section at the bottom of this page for more information on current licensing reviews.

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In the 1980s, DOE developed a gas centrifuge program, including construction and operation of a test cascade in Oak Ridge, TN. More than 1300 gas centrifuges were installed, and 700 operated with uranium hexafluoride at the Gas Centrifuge Enrichment Plant in Piketon, Ohio. About 100 machines operated for nine months. The idea was abandoned in 1986, however, in favor of the Advanced Vapor Laser Isotope Separation (AVLIS) process. Research on the AVLIS process was later terminated in 2000 by the USEC. USEC began to reconsider gas centrifuge technology as a more practical advanced enrichment technology for replacing gaseous diffusion, which is more expensive and requires more energy. By this time, the gas centrifuge process had already been commercially developed on a large scale by the Russians and by URENCO in the United Kingdom, Germany, and The Netherlands.

In the early 1990s, URENCO teamed up with several U.S. utilities to form the LES partnership. In January 1991, the NRC received an application from LES to construct and operate the nation's first privately owned gas centrifuge enrichment facility. The 1.5 million Separative Work Unit (SWU) plant was to be built in Homer, Louisiana. LES decided to withdraw its application in 1998.

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Regulations and Legislation

In 1990, Congress passed the Solar, Wind, Waste, and Geothermal Power Production Incentives Act of 1990. Among other things, this legislation amended the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to require licensing of uranium enrichment facilities under U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulations in 10 CFR Parts 40 and 70. The act also stated that the construction and operation of a uranium enrichment facility is considered a major Federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment for the purposes of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Therefore, an Environmental Impact Statement would need to be prepared for this type of facility. Under the legislation, an adjudicatory hearing on the licensing of the construction and operation is required. This hearing must be completed before issuance of a license. The act also requires that the applicant obtain public liability insurance for the facility and requires the NRC to perform an inspection of the facility before beginning operations to ensure that the plant is constructed to meet the license requirements.

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Licensing Reviews

The following corporations are developing gas centrifuge enrichment facilities:

In June 2006, the NRC issued a license to Louisiana Energy Services to construct and operate a gas centrifuge enrichment plant in Eunice, New Mexico. Construction of the URENCO USA facility, (previously known as the National Enrichment Facility) began in August 2006 with initial operations in June 2010 while continuing construction. The NRC also issued a license to USEC in April 2007 for a gas centrifuge enrichment plant in Piketon, Ohio. Known as the American Centrifuge Plant, that facility began construction in May 2007. In addition, in October, 2011, NRC issued a license to AREVA Enrichment Services to construct and operate the Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility to be located near the city of Idaho Falls, ID. Construction of the Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility is expected to start in 2013.

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Page Last Reviewed/Updated Monday, May 04, 2015