Turning BLEU? Uranium use taking new path after Cold War

By Thomas Wilson

   Uranium -- it's not just for bombs anymore.
   The United States has the lowest uranium production since 1953 when the "Cold War" with the Soviet Union was still in its infancy. However, the public and private sectors are scrambling to develop the plentiful element for use in other energy processes.
   According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), domestic uranium production has dropped significantly in the past seven years. During 1996, 6.3 million pounds of uranium was produced for domestic purposes compared to 2.3 million pounds last year, according to the EIA.
   In the past, there were three things enriched uranium could be used for: Building nuclear weapons, making submarine fuel for nuclear powered submarines, or storing and disposing the uranium in perpetuity.
   The handful of U.S. and international companies involved in some type of uranium mining or process are seeking to take advantage of a fourth option of uranium use: Converting it into a fuel to use in a nuclear commercial reactor to make commercial electricity.
   Nuclear Fuel Services is seeking three licensing amendments to their Special Nuclear Material License to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The amendments would authorize modification to the company's special nuclear material processing operations in the Blended Low-Enriched Uranium (BLEU) Preparation Facility at nuclear fuel facilities in Erwin.
   The BLEU Project will convert surplus highly enriched uranium from Cold War defense stockpiles into useful low enriched uranium fuel for TVA nuclear reactors to produce electricity.
   The project has raised the concern of environmental groups, which have filed one of two petitions filed requesting a public hearing be held about the BLEU Project. The petitioners cite the project's environmental assessment that " ... the EA states that: Groundwater monitoring conducted by NFS indicates that plumes of uranium, tetrachloroethylene, TCE, 1,2-dichloroethylene, and vinyl chloride could migrate offsite in the direction of the Nolichucky River."
   However, NFS officials adamantly maintain the project has undergone seven years of review by state and federal authorities as well as an independent environmental group.
   Highly enriched uranium can be diluted, or "blended down" with depleted, natural, or very low-enriched uranium to produce 3 to 5 percent low-enriched reactor fuel.
   Uranium metal at various enrichments must be chemically processed so that it can be blended into a homogeneous material at one enrichment level. As a result, the health and environmental risks of blending are similar to those for uranium conversion and enrichment.
   In 2001, 10.4 million separative work units (SWU) were purchased by owners and operators of U.S. civilian nuclear power reactors under enrichment services contracts. U.S. uranium enrichment plants provided 12 percent of the SWU and foreign enrichment plants the remaining 88 percent. Firms that were reported as the sellers of enrichment services for these SWU deliveries in 2001 included: Enrichment Service Sellers to Owners and Operators of U.S. Civilian Nuclear Power Reactors include United States Enrichment Corp., China Nuclear Energy Industry Corp., Cogema, Inc., Framatome ANP, Globe Nuclear Service & Supply (GNSS), Urenco, and Westinghouse, according to the Department of Energy.
   Framatome ANP, Inc. has been awarded a contract by the Tennessee Valley Authority for the supply of nuclear fuel and fuel-related services to the Browns Ferry Nuclear Station, Units 2 and 3. With headquarters in Paris, France, Framatome successfully merged the nuclear activities with Siemens Power Generation to form Framatome ANP.
   Employment in the U.S. uranium raw materials industry in 2001 was reported as 423 person-years expended. Compared with 1998 and 2000, 2001 employment overall decreased by 62 percent and 33 percent, respectively.
   Employment levels in individual categories changed significantly from 2000: Mining declined by 48 percent, milling by 60 percent, processing by 11 percent, reclamation by 21 percent, and exploration employment was zero. Colorado, Texas, and Wyoming accounted for 71 percent of the total employment in 2001.
   Natural uranium consists of three isotopes: Uranium-238, uranium-235, and uranium-234. Uranium-238, the most prevalent isotope in uranium ore, has a half-life of about 4.5 billion years. Uranium-238 can be converted into fissionable plutonium in breeder reactors.
   U.S. civilian power plants typically use 3 to 5 percent uranium-235. Weapons use "highly enriched uranium" (HEU) with over 90 percent uranium-235. Uranium-235 can be concentrated by gaseous diffusion and other physical processes, if desired, and used directly as a nuclear fuel, instead of natural uranium, or used as an explosive.