U.S. Centrifuge Work Revived in Updated Form

These 1980s centrifuges have been demolished to make way for new ones that will produce enriched uranium more efficiently.
These 1980s centrifuges have been demolished to make way for new ones that will produce enriched uranium more efficiently. (Usec Inc.)
By Dan Charles
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 23, 2007

PIKETON, Ohio -- Inside an enormous structure here, shielded by heavy security, a U.S. company is hard at work constructing tall, slender, uranium-enriching centrifuges designed to obtain uranium-235 for nuclear fuel -- the very technology that is provoking a standoff between the United States and Iran.

USEC Inc., which took over the government's uranium enrichment operations in 1993, is building the centrifuges at the Portsmouth Reservation, a Department of Energy property near Piketon. Within five years, if USEC can come up with the money, the building will hold 11,500 centrifuges and sell enriched uranium to nuclear plants around the world.

USEC's machines are technical marvels, much larger than those of Iran or other nations in the international centrifuge club, which includes Russia, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Pakistan and Brazil.

The most remarkable aspect of USEC's American Centrifuge project, though, is its resurrection from the dead.

The basic design originated more than two decades ago at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. In the early 1980s, the DOE constructed an enormous centrifuge enrichment plant at the Portsmouth Reservation. But before it went into operation, the nuclear industry ran aground, and projected demand for nuclear fuel fell precipitously. In 1985, with 1,300 centrifuges already installed, the government canceled the program.

The building near Piketon became a mausoleum of secret technology. For more than 20 years, its centrifuges stood idle in silent rows.

"We had the feeling that someday those buildings would be like Stonehenge," said Houston G. Wood III, a professor at the University of Virginia who worked on the project. "People would come and wonder, 'What were they thinking?' "

The United States continued to produce enriched uranium at older plants that use another technology, called gaseous diffusion. These plants were privatized along with USEC in the late 1990s. Gaseous diffusion, however, is inefficient. The one plant that USEC still operates, at Paducah, Ky., consumes huge amounts of electricity, and USEC wants to replace it.

In 1999, the company elected to pursue centrifuges. It began searching for experts in the technology, many of them still working at Oak Ridge.

"Frankly, I don't think we would have resurrected this, had that not been the case," said Dean Waters, a leader of the centrifuge program before it was cancelled. He now works for USEC. Waters, like others, was about to retire when company officials called.

Waters helped retrieve old technical reports, computer programs and centrifuge-related equipment from a vault at Oak Ridge.

"It's like reliving your youth," he said. "You almost have to pinch yourself; how can I be doing this again?"

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