A row of centrifuges inside a massive facility in Piketon are now enriching uranium.
A row of centrifuges are now enriching uranium at a facility in Piketon. The massive plant has room for thousands more. [Centrus Energy]

Piketon is poised to again become a nuclear hub with the launch of a uranium enrichment plant

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PIKETON, (Ohio) – With the flip of three switches, 16 giant cylinders lined neatly in a row came to life and began enriching uranium that will fuel the next generation of nuclear power plants.

This was the first launch of a uranium enrichment plant in the United States in almost 70 years. The last one was on the same site in Piketon.

It was a massive complex launched by the federal government in 1954 that enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and power plants until it was shuttered in 2001. The old plant is now undergoing a decadeslong cleanup to remove radioactive contamination from buildings, soil and groundwater.

Meanwhile, the United States has since gone from being the world’s largest exporter of enriched uranium to the largest importer.

The new plant is intended to change that equation.

A group takes a tour of the new uranium enrichment plant in Piketon, which launched on Wednesday.
A group takes a tour of the new uranium enrichment plant in Piketon, which launched on Wednesday. It is the only facility of its kind in the United States and will provide fuel for the next generation of nuclear power plants. [Centrus Energy]
To underscore the national significance of this new facility in southeast Ohio, David Turk, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, attended the opening ceremony Wednesday for the new Piketon plant.

“For the first time ever an American company is producing HALEU on American soil, providing critical fuel for advanced nuclear reactors,” he said.

The Piketon plant is the only one in the United States licensed by the federal government to produce HALEU.

HALEU is an acronym for high-assay low-enriched uranium. Right now, Russia is the only commercial source of HALEU.

Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, gave a nod to the new plant’s geopolitical context in his remarks.

“The past few years have reminded us just how critical it is to produce energy in America,” he said.

The federal government is investing hundreds of millions of dollars into HALEU research and development, including $700 million in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act to support the development of a domestic supply chain for HALEU.

HALEU is a potent fuel source. Three tablespoons is enough to supply one person’s energy needs for a lifetime.

For now, all the HALEU produced at the Piketon plant will go to the federal government, which is conducting its own tests of a new generation of nuclear power plants.

But Centrus Energy, the company operating the new plant, has big plans. The 16 centrifuges launched Wednesday occupy a sliver of the cavernous facility, which is the size of the Pentagon.

 “These buildings can accommodate thousands of additional machines that can produce HALEU to fuel the next generation of advanced reactors … and the enriched uranium needed to sustain our nuclear deterrent for generations to come,” said Centrus President and CEO Daniel Poneman.

Centrus has signed agreements to supply HALEU to two companies that are hoping to soon build nuclear power plants using new reactor technology that promises to be more efficient and safer than the reactors in operation now.

One of them is Oklo, a California startup that plans to build two small plants at the Piketon site. But first it needs a license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which it expects to apply for in 2025.

With the launch of the Centrus facility and Oklo’s plans to build nuclear reactors, Piketon is once again poised to become a national hub of the nation’s nuclear industry.

Pike County commissioner Tony Montgomery said he welcomes the return.

“Something like this doesn’t scare us, doesn’t scare us at all,” he said. “In Pike County we enrich uranium – this is what we do.”