Valindaba / Pelindaba East
The Y-Plant pilot uranium enrichment plant was built to produce 45% enriched uranium for the SAFARI-I reactor, and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. This facility, also known as Pelindaba East, is adjacent to the Pelindaba Nuclear Research Center located approximately 35 km west of Pretoria. The plant, which closed in 1990, used a unique aerodynamic process to separate the U-235 from the U-238. The process used the centrifugal effect of spinning uranium hexafluoride and hydrogen gases inside a tube to separate the heavier uranium-238 fraction from the lighter uranium-235 fraction.
Construction of the Pilot Enrichment Plant (the Y Plant), commenced in 1971 and the first stages at the lower end of the cascade were commissioned by the end of 1974. Full cascade operation of the entire plant commenced in March 1977. Due to the long equilibrium time of the plant (the time necessary to establish the full enrichment gradient) the first and relatively small quantity of high enriched UF6 was withdrawn from the plant only in January 1978. Technical problems plagued the process throughout its operation; in one instance, a chemical contamination forced the entire production line to shut down from 1979 to 1981.
The best estimate places the total Y-Plant HEU production at 550 kg. The final inventory at program termination was eight active weapons: six operational (five air deliverable, one test device), one weapon under construction (intended to be a test device) and one weapon (without an HEU core assigned) for training purposes. This plant has been dismantled under the supervision of the IAEA.
Pelindaba East was also the site of a Molecular Laser Isotope Separation [MLIS] joint project of AEC and Cogema of France, which was cancelled in 1997. Construction of the prototype demonstration module of the MLIS project was carried out in the Y-Plant building. Current international multi-stage uranium enrichment processes are either very energy intensive or capital intensive and a small number of countries have active atomic vapour laser or molecular laser based development programs to replace existing technology after 2000. The AEC's MLIS program, which started in 1983, had made steady progress until 1995 when COGEMA of France joined forces with the AEC in a 50/50 funding arrangement to industrialise the AEC's process for possible commercial use. Although progress within the joint program was initially quite rapid, the technologically very demanding process started falling behind on a few technical milestones that were crucial for COGEMA's strategic decision making, due to repeated budget cuts in the AEC's State allocation.
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