NFS prepares for HEU oxide-to-metal conversion under contract from the NNSA

April 13, 2023, 9:30AMNuclear News
Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin, Tenn. (Photo: BWX Technologies)

BWX Technologies announced on April 10 that its Nuclear Fuel Services subsidiary in Erwin, Tenn., has been awarded a five-year, $428 million contract from the National Nuclear Security Administration to purify and convert high-enriched uranium (HEU) from an oxide to a metal. The Phase II contract follows the successful completion by NFS of a $57.5 million contract awarded two years ago for a process line design and pilot demonstration.

Why NFS? NFS is one of only two Category I nuclear facilities licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to store and process HEU (the other is the BWXT Nuclear Operations Group site in Lynchburg, Va.). Inside its Category I facility, NFS must install the new process line before conversion and purification operations can begin. NFS will need license amendments from the NRC to carry out the contracted work, and BWXT expects the license amendment to be finalized “later in 2023.”

“Under the first phase of the contract, NFS proved that it could meet the rigorous requirements outlined by the NNSA,” said Sharon Smoot, president of BWXT Nuclear Operations Group. “The conversion process is similar to other work we currently perform, and we are confident that we will meet the demands of Phase II of the contract while maintaining a strong focus on safety and quality.”

Why now? Oxide-to-metal purification and conversion of HEU has historically been performed at the NNSA’s Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to support national security missions, including NNSA’s Office of Defense Programs and the Nuclear Propulsion and Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation programs.

The NNSA is modernizing the facilities, equipment, and processes used to recycle and recover HEU at Y-12. The contract awarded to BWXT is part of a bridging strategy to “ensure an oxide-to-metal conversion capability is maintained while the site draws down its current oxide-to-metal conversion capability to later ramp up with the establishment of new technologies such as direct electrolytic reduction (DER) in enduring facilities at Y-12,” according to an April 10 announcement from the NNSA.

In addition to ensuring that an oxide-to-metal conversion capability is maintained, the Phase II contract covers the conversion of HEU with an enrichment level higher than that processed at Y-12. According to the NNSA, the contract “provides an opportunity to convert [very high-enriched uranium (VHEU)] oxide-to-metal. Y-12 does not have the capability nor plans to establish the capability to convert VHEU oxide to purified metal.”

More on the plan: According to the NNSA, the Phase II contract “establishes capabilities for initial production and up to two years of full production for the purification and conversion of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and very highly enriched uranium (VHEU).”

The NNSA will provide enriched uranium oxide to NFS, and NFS will return the purified metal to Y-12 for storage and future use. The enrichment of the material will not change.

The Phase II contract will also allow NFS to use portions of the purification and conversion line to produce fuel feedstock for potential use in naval reactors. NFS manufactures fuel material for all naval nuclear reactors used in U.S. submarines and aircraft carriers.

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