Source: Exchange Monitor | DAN LEONE | April 3, 2020
Nearly a month after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, production of Centrus Energy Corp.’s new all-domestic enrichment cascade in Ohio is one of the first projects for the Department of Energy fearing delays from the viral outbreak.
“We are continuing to make progress but we anticipate that there could be impacts on the project schedule as a result of the COVID-19 response,” a Centrus spokesperson said this week.
The company is building a 16-machine cascade based on its AC100M technology at the Energy Department’s Portsmouth Site near Piketon, Ohio. The aim is to produce a uranium fuel containing 19.75% uranium-235, high assay low enriched uranium (HALEU), that DOE wants to help develop next-generation nuclear reactors.
Work on the cascade began last summer under a letter contract for the $115-million, 80-20 cost share deal. The three-year pact has two years of firm funding and a one-year option. Since work started, Centrus has pushed through four of 14 milestones, hitting the third in October when it awarded a contract for procurement of machine casings. The Bethesda, Md., company didn’t say who got the deal.
Not long after that subcontract award, the novel coronavirus broke out in Wuhan, China. It spread to the U.S. by January and now has disrupted daily life for the foreseeable future.
With Centrus caught up in the pandemic response, like the rest of the industry, there is some doubt about keeping the HALEU cascade on the rails. The primary contract milestone this year is building centrifuge subassemblies and sending them to Piketon: all 16, by Dec. 31.
A Centrus spokesperson on Friday would not comment on whether the company thought it could make that milestone. The company continues “to make very good progress on the HALEU centrifuge program even with a significant number of people teleworking,” the spokesperson said.
Centrus is already ahead of one key milestone in its contract, deadline for which was June 1: reestablishing a vendor supply chain to provide material and equipment for the new centrifuges. The new HALEU cascade will be built on the site of the company’s now-decommissioned American Centrifuge Project.
But DOE’s Portsmouth Site is transitioning to minimum safe operations after confirming a case of COVID-19 among the former enrichment site’s workforce — Centrus wouldn’t say if it was one of theirs — and Centrus can only do so much remote work on the HALEU contract.
The silver lining for the company is that “[m]uch of the work under our HALEU contract with the Department of Energy to date is unclassified and portions of it can continue via telework,” the spokesperson said.
To prepare for that, Centrus is “doing a controlled shutdown of some support systems at our Piketon site, with minimal staffing,” the company spokesperson said Friday. “The vast majority” of the company’s 70 Piketon employees are still at work, remotely or on site, the spokesperson said.
Centrus said this week, as Chief Executive Office Daniel Poneman said last week on an investor earnings call, that the company is already in contact with DOE about possible delays to the HALEU cascade.
AC100 technology is one of two the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is considering using for a next-generation domestic enrichment facility needed in the 2040s to produce low-enriched uranium for tritium production.
Centrus’ technology is, according to NNSA, by far the more mature of the two. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee is developing the other, sometimes called “small centrifuge.” Keeping the pressure on Centrus, the NNSA has decided to delay its analysis of alternatives, essentially, the choice between the two technologies, by about a year. The agency now expects to decide which to use in late 2020.