Centrus gets NRC’s okay to introduce uranium in HALEU demonstration cascade

June 16, 2023, 7:00AMNuclear News
Centrus’s HALEU demonstration cascade. (Photo: Centrus Energy)

Centrus Energy announced yesterday that it has received Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval to introduce uranium hexafluoride into its 16-machine centrifuge cascade in Piketon, Ohio, following operational readiness reviews by the NRC. Centrus says it “remains on track to begin production of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) by the end of 2023.” The announcement follows a series of inspections at the American Centrifuge site in April 2023.

Contract delivery: Centrus began building the HALEU demonstration cascade in 2019 under a contract from the Department of Energy that anticipated the start of HALEU production in June 2022. In November 2022, Centrus secured a follow-on contract to finish construction, complete final regulatory steps, bring the cascade into operation, and produce 20 kilograms of HALEU by the end of the year. Centrus’s NRC license was successfully amended in 2021 to make the Piketon site the only NRC-licensed HALEU production facility.

“Centrus continues to meet every contract milestone on time and on budget, putting us in position to pioneer U.S. HALEU production to meet the needs of the Department and the nuclear industry,” said Daniel B. Poneman, Centrus president and chief executive officer. “By establishing a secure, reliable American source of HALEU, we can help enable the commercialization of a whole new generation of U.S.-designed advanced nuclear reactors to supply the carbon-free energy the world needs.”

“We are proud to be one step closer to starting up what will be the first new, U.S.-owned enrichment plant to begin production in 70 years,” said Centrus senior vice president for field operations Larry Cutlip. “Our talented workforce has executed beautifully in building the cascade, securing a HALEU license, and putting us in position to become the first commercial HALEU producer.”

NRC’s determination (and its limits): The NRC notified Centrus of its approval to load UF6 in a letter dated June 12. The letter states in part that “this NRC authorization is based on the results of construction, quality assurance, and operational readiness inspections of various aspects of the HALEU Demonstration Cascade. . . . The NRC staff determined that the systems, structures, and components designed to support safe operation of the HALEU cascade were constructed in accordance with the requirements of your license.”

The letter goes on to state that “this authorization does not authorize enrichment of uranium-235 above the Category III limits defined in 10 CFR 70.4. Additionally, this authorization only applies to the HALEU Demonstration Cascade, and it does not apply to processes or components associated with future phases of facility operations.”

Under 10 CFR 70.4 (“Definitions” in Domestic Licensing of Special Nuclear Material), Category III limits for U-235 “contained in uranium enriched to 10 percent or more but less than 20 percent of the U-235 isotope” are “less than 10,000 grams but more than 1,000 grams.” Also within Category III limits are “10,000 grams or more of uranium-235 (contained in uranium enriched above natural but less than 10 percent in the U-235 isotope).”

Still on the to-do list: Centrus announced in February that construction of the demonstration cascade and most of the support systems was complete. In a June 15 press release Centrus noted that “next steps are for Centrus to complete construction of the on-site HALEU storage area and conduct final testing activities prior to operation, with initial HALEU production set to begin by the end of the year.”

Centrus reiterated its previously announced interest in “the possibility to scale up the Piketon facility with additional centrifuge cascades for expanded HALEU production—provided that sufficient funding or offtake contracts can be secured.” The company said that a full-scale, 120-machine HALEU cascade could produce about 6 metric tons of HALEU per year and could be brought on line “within about 42 months [3.5 years] of securing the funding to do so.”

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