The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has authorized the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC) to increase the enrichment level of uranium produced at its facility in Paducah, Kentucky. The facility uses the gaseous diffusion method to increase the concentration of uranium-235 from the percentage found in nature to the percentage needed to fuel nuclear power plants.
USEC operates the plant under a lease with the U.S. Department of Energy. Congress gave the NRC authority to regulate the health and safety aspects of the plant, and the agency has two full-time resident inspectors at the site. Also, specialized inspections are conducted using personnel from NRC headquarters and the regional office in Lisle, Illinois.
The Paducah plant is increasing its uranium enrichment capability from 2.75% to 5.5% because the only other plant that produces such a level of enrichment -- located in Portsmouth, Ohio -- is scheduled to close this summer. Previously, uranium enriched at Paducah had to be further enriched at Portsmouth before it could be converted to usable fuel for nuclear power plants.
The gaseous diffusion method heats uranium hexafluoride to a gas and repeatedly passes it through a membrane with tiny openings to separate the uranium isotopes. The gas that escapes through the barriers becomes slightly enriched, condenses into a liquid, solidifies, and is transported to a fuel fabrication facility where it is converted into reactor fuel.
The NRC staff has held several public meetings since last summer to inform the residents and workers of plans to increase the enrichment capability. The staff performed a final operational readiness review last month before issuing the final amendment for the higher enrichment, or assay.
The license certification becomes final today, and an upcoming Federal Register Notice will describe the amendment contents in more detail.