Y-12 Knows Uranium

Posted: July 22, 2013 - 3:45pm | Y-12 Report | Volume 10, Issue 1 | 2013

Y‑12 produces many forms of uranium. They may be used in chemical processing steps on-site or shipped elsewhere to serve as raw materials for nuclear fuel or as research tools.

All of uranium’s uses, defense related and otherwise, are critical to the nation. Y‑12’s understanding of uranium, coupled with the site’s work with enriched uranium metal, alloys, oxides, compounds and solutions, is unique in the Nuclear Security Enterprise.

“The Y‑12 work force understands both established uranium science and the esoteric things related to uranium’s behavior,” said engineer Alan Moore. “Such a deep, detailed understanding comes from experience, excellent procedures, intense training and knowledge preservation management.”

Enriched uranium, first produced at Y‑12 during World War II, is one of the United States’ greatest assets. Y‑12 produces uranium weapon components to refurbish the nation’s nuclear stockpile; every weapon system in the stockpile contains Y‑12–produced components. The gaseous diffusion capacity for generating highly enriched uranium, which is key to creating nuclear fission, was greatly reduced when one gaseous diffusion plant was shut down decades ago. To ensure that America’s nuclear arsenal remains operational and to supply special nuclear material for non-weapon uses, Y‑12 recycles and reprocesses the nation’s existing supply of enriched uranium.

The recycled metal also serves as feedstock for the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers, for commercial power reactors that generate U.S. electricity, for medical isotope production and for some domestic and foreign research reactor programs.

“Skilled Y‑12 employees safely, securely and efficiently manipulate uranium into whatever product form and grade is desired,” Moore said.

While performing its missions, Y‑12 tracks and transports large amounts of enriched uranium, protecting against nuclear safety issues and theft. “Y‑12 is a world authority in practices associated with accounting for enriched uranium,” Moore noted (see Uranium Track Team). Y‑12 engineers designed the ES-3100 shipping container (see Y-12 is the Nation's Expert in All Things Uranium) for transporting bulk enriched uranium and other fissile materials. The container was first licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2006 and later by the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management.

Y‑12’s uranium experts are steering their knowledge and skills toward security-related activities. The site is home to the nation’s uranium materials archive, a critical tool for nuclear forensics (see Archive Preserves At-Risk Samples). As a mainstay of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s global Threat Reduction Initiative, Y‑12 also helps recover and secure at-risk nuclear materials around the globe.

With decades of experience in the applied science and manufacturability of uranium, Y‑12, in partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has produced testing devices to validate uranium detection equipment and techniques. The objects, which can simulate large amounts of weapons-grade uranium, will greatly enhance the way uranium is detected. In other research areas, high-tech labs enable scientists to fashion smaller and better detection instruments (see Probing Uranium's Mysteries).

In 2008, the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility was built on-site as part of Y‑12’s modernization activities. HEUMF — a fortification of concrete and steel the size of a football field — houses the nation’s cache of weapons-grade uranium. Also vital to the site’s transformation will be the new Uranium Processing Facility (see Industrial-Strength UPF). UPF, now in the final design stages, will be a state-of-the-art, consolidated facility for enriched uranium operations. Designed to meet America’s nuclear security demands for the next 50 years, UPF will replace Cold War–era facilities.

Since the hidden power of uranium was uncovered, Y‑12 has protected the element’s crucial role in the nation’s defense and has explored and expanded its peacetime uses and benefits.