Honeywell International’s uranium conversion plant in Metropolis, Illinois, has received the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) approval to run for 40 more years. The approval for the nation’s sole conversion facility is key to ensure it can continue supplying uranium hexafluoride (UF6), a basic component of enriched nuclear fuel used in commercial nuclear power reactors.
The NRC on March 25 completed review of a license renewal application Honeywell submitted in February 2017 and granted its permission to allow the facility to run until March 2060. When the license expires, it will mean that the facility, which was built in 1958 and first produced UF6 in 1959 for the U.S. government, will be more than a century old.
The facility began converting uranium ore concentrates—known commonly as “yellowcake”—to UF6 for commercial purposes in 1968. In Fukushima’s aftermath, which prompted nuclear phaseouts and idled plants in Japan and Germany, Honeywell temporarily idled UF6 production at the Metropolis site and slashed its full-time workforce by 170 positions, citing an oversupplied UF6 global market. It said then, however, that it would maintain minimal operations to support a future restart “should business conditions improve.”
According to the NRC, the facility is still currently in a “ready-idle” status with a reduced amount of material on site. However, the relicensing will allow it to continue receiving uranium oxide from mills and in-situ recovery facilities, and possessing, storing, using, and shipping source material for a conversion capacity of 15,000 metric tons (16,535 tons) UF6.
Honeywell told POWER in a statement that it likely won’t restart operations until “market conditions improve to operate sustainably.” Sanjeev Rastogi, vice president and general manager, Honeywell Fluorine Products, said, however, that the NRC’s decision to grant the company’s request for a 40-year license extension “displays a significant vote of confidence that the Metropolis facility has the capability to remain as a critical part of the U.S. nuclear fuel infrastructure, supplying both our U.S. and global customers for the foreseeable future.”
As a facility fact sheet notes, Honeywell continues to employ 250 full-time employees, including approximately 100 production employees represented by the United Steelworkers. Honeywell says it has also invested nearly $177 million over the past 10 years in capital improvements, including more than $50 million in safety projects. Upgrades will ensure the facility can withstand a significant seismic event or tornado, as required by the NRC under its post-Fukushima mandates for all U.S. nuclear-related facilities. “These upgrades reflect a significant investment by Honeywell in our plant to continue to serve our customers and preserve hundreds of good jobs in the Metropolis area,” the company has said.
The NRC said its review focused on Honeywell’s decommissioning funding, the environmental effects of the facility for the duration of the license, facility changes and safety basis, and the controls to monitor material degradation and aging.
UPDATED (March 26) with details from Honeywell on the status of the facility, and the company’s plans to restart operations.