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Gas Centrifuge Enrichment Process
The gas centrifuge uranium enrichment process uses a large number of rotating cylinders (i.e., centrifuges) to enrich uranium. See a description of the technology at Uranium Enrichment.
In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Energy (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 there and an additional 700 were operated by DOE with uranium hexafluoride at the Gas Centrifuge Enrichment Plant in Piketon, Ohio. The project was shut down in 1986, in favor of the Advanced Vapor Laser Isotope Separation (AVLIS) process. Research on the AVLIS process was later terminated in 2000 by the U.S. Enrichment Corporation (USEC); a privatized company.
USEC re-activated the gas centrifuge technology project as a more practical advanced enrichment technology for replacing gaseous diffusion, a more expensive process that requires more energy. In February 2004, the NRC issued a license to USEC for the Lead Cascade Facility. The purpose of this facility was to provide reliability information on a small group of centrifuge machines and the auxiliary systems as they would be used in commercial operations. In August 2006, USEC began operating the Lead Cascade Facility which was housed entirely in the Gas Centrifuge Enrichment Plant that DOE had established. In February 2016, enrichment operations at the Lead Cascade Facility ceased. The facility is currently being decommissioned.
The NRC issued a license to USEC in April 2007 for a large commercial gas centrifuge enrichment plant in Piketon, Ohio known as the American Centrifuge Plant. This facility was largely to be housed in DOE's Gas Centrifuge Enrichment Plant and its operation was intended to subsume the Lead Cascade Facility. Major construction or equipment installation activities has not taken place at the facility. However, some activities facilitating future construction did occur between 2007 and 2009.
In the early 1990s, URENCO teamed up with several U.S. utilities to form the Louisiana Energy Services (LES) partnership. In January 1991, the NRC received an application from LES to construct and operate the U.S.'s first privately owned gas centrifuge enrichment facility. The 1.5 million Separative Work Unit (SWU) plant was to be built in Homer, Louisiana. Although LES withdrew this application in 1998, it subsequently built a plant in Eunice, New Mexico. In June 2006, the NRC issued a license to LES 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. Construction of additional cascade halls continued after initial operation of the plant in order to add additional capacity. The URENCO USA is currently operational.
In October 2011, NRC issued a license (SNM-2015) to AREVA Enrichment Services to construct and operate the Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility to be located near the city of Idaho Falls, ID. In January of 2018, AREVA Enrichment Services was renamed Orano USA, LLC. In May 2018, Orano USA, LLC requested termination of the NRC license for the Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility which was never constructed. In August 2018, NRC informed Orano USA, LLC that license SNM-2015 was terminated.
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 (NEPA) 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.
The licensing reviews for the gas centrifuge facilities are complete and the licenses have been issued. Louisiana Energy Services is now operating the fully functional URENCO USA plant. A historical description of the licensing processes can be found below.
Page Last Reviewed/Updated Wednesday, December 02, 2020