The American Centrifuge Project: Q&A with Paul Jacobson, USEC

USEC Inc. is a leading supplier of nuclear fuel to electric utilities worldwide. The company famously managed the “Megatons to Megawatts” program, a 20-year contract with Russia to downblend and sell low-enriched uranium derived from Russian nuclear warhead material. Now USEC operates the only U.S.-owned uranium enrichment facility in the United States. Paul Jacobson, VP of Communications for USEC, sat down with Forum on Energy to explain their flagship program, the American Centrifuge Project.

Forum on Energy: What is the American Centrifuge Project?

Paul Jacobson: Since 2002, USEC has been developing and demonstrating a highly efficient uranium enrichment gas centrifuge technology called the American Centrifuge. USEC is working to deploy this technology in its American Centrifuge Plant.

The American Centrifuge Plant is an advanced uranium enrichment facility in Piketon, Ohio, which will produce low-enriched uranium, a key component for the fabrication of commercial nuclear fuel. The American Centrifuge Plant’s capacity will be equal to about one-fourth of the fuel requirements for the commercial power reactors in the United States, which provide approximately 19 percent of the U.S. electricity supply today. As the only domestic enrichment facility using U.S. technology, the American Centrifuge Plant will be critical to the long-term energy security and national security interests of the United States.

The American Centrifuge Plant will utilize USEC’s AC100 centrifuge machine, which has been developed, engineered and manufactured in the United States. The AC100 design is a disciplined evolution of classified U.S. centrifuge technology originally developed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and successfully demonstrated during the 1980s. DOE invested $3 billion over 10 years to develop the centrifuge technology, built approximately 1,500 machines and accumulated more than 10 million machine hours of run time.

USEC has improved the DOE technology through advanced materials, updated electronics and design enhancements based on highly advanced computer modeling capabilities. Due to these improvements, the AC100 can produce four times the output per machine of any other centrifuge in existence today. The American Centrifuge is a proven technology, having recently concluded a cooperative program with the Department of Energy that achieved both of its main objectives and successfully met all ten of its technical milestones, all five of its performance indicators and a series of additional tests.

USEC has a construction and operating license for the American Centrifuge Plant issued by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In addition to providing economic advantages through energy production and job creation, the American Centrifuge Project will also provide significant environmental, energy security, nonproliferation and national security benefits.

Forum on Energy: Why do we need it?

Jacobson: The events unfolding in Ukraine remind us of the dangers that come with a lack of diversity and competition in fuel supply. Today, there are only two global enrichment technologies: European and Russian. Without a competitive U.S. technology in the global uranium enrichment market, customers will be in more vulnerable positions on critical matters of energy security and price competition.

Forum on Energy: What is the construction timeline and budget for the American Centrifuge Project?

Jacobson: Due to current conditions in the global nuclear fuel market, USEC has said it is not viable at this time to pursue commercial deployment of the American Centrifuge. The company does, however, retain the right to commercialize the technology once market conditions improve.

Forum on Energy: How will the recent reorganization plans and the role of Oak Ridge National Laboratory affect the American Centrifuge Project?

Jacobson: The American Centrifuge Technology Demonstration and Operations Agreement, signed May 1, 2014, builds on the success of the predecessor centrifuge demonstration program, preserves a reliable and economic domestic uranium enrichment capability for national security and promotes future private sector deployment. The DOE instructed Oak Ridge National Laboratory to assist in developing a path forward for achieving a reliable and economic domestic uranium enrichment capability that promotes private sector deployment and that supports national security objectives. Based on DOE’s instruction, Oak Ridge National Laboratory chose to subcontract with USEC. The agreement calls for operation of the 120-machine demonstration cascade in Piketon, Ohio, to continue. Testing will continue at USEC’s test facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Work will continue in Oak Ridge at USEC’s centrifuge technology center on core American Centrifuge research and technology activities, and USEC will provide regular reports to Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Forum on Energy: How will funding uncertainty affect the timeline and completion of the American Centrifuge Project?

Jacobson: Two factors are at work regarding the timeline and funding of the technology: The conditions in the commercial nuclear fuel market place and the United States government’s determination of how best to meet its national security needs for low-enriched uranium. The U.S. government is currently examining options for how best to meet its national security needs for low-enriched uranium, and that report will not be concluded until sometime in 2015. Presently, the USEC contract with Oak Ridge National Laboratory is funded and extends through March 31, 2015 and the laboratory has an option to extend it an additional six months to September 30, 2015.