Sunday, August 18, 2002

Forgotten Piketon buildings reflect uncertainty in diffusion industry




By Malia Rulon
The Associated Press

        PIKETON, Ohio - Two nearly forgotten warehouse-sized buildings loom behind the state's sole uranium conversion plant, flanked by power grids and miles of rolling countryside.

        Though now nearly empty, the buildings may be the key to the future of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, where uranium enrichment ceased last year.

        Centrifuge technology, abandoned in the 1980s, is again the government's top choice for processing uranium to produce fuel for commercial power plants and preserve national security interests.

        The Portsmouth plant was meant to house a state-of-the-art centrifuge technology operation, before the Energy Department predicted that laser technology would be the wave of the future.

        Plant operator USEC Inc. abandoned the Atomic Vapor Laser Isotope Separation process in 1999 after spending $100 million. It said additional work on the project would take too long, cost too much and provide too little profit.

        AVLIS, which uses lasers to enrich uranium, had been expected to generate 1,900 construction jobs and to ensure the long-term survival of whatever plant became its home.

        Now, gas centrifuge is being viewed in the same light. The technology is used in several other countries, and USEC is looking for a site to build a new operation by 2010.

        The Bush administration has pledged about $70 million of its 2004 budget to clean up the Portsmouth plant's never-opened centrifuge operation.

        The plant has the infrastructure and cleanup plans in its favor, but there are other factors, said general manager Patrick Musser.

        “There are several hundred million dollars of capital benefits to those facilities ... Clearly, I think we have a real good find out there, but it's in the numbers that would determine where (the centrifuge) will go,” he said.

        The 1940s-era gaseous diffusion process heats uranium into a gas, then filters it through three separate mile-long buildings to separate the desired lighter isotopes from the heavier ones.

        Centrifuge technology takes place in tall, spinning cylinders that use gravity to separate uranium molecules, allowing technicians to extract both enriched uranium and waste.

        “The lights are out, it hasn't been used in many years,” USEC manager Ken Tomoko said, surveying row after row of cold cylinders.

       



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