World competitors plan uranium enrichment plants
  
By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

Two major competitors on the international market for uranium enrichment services plan to submit license applications in December to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for gas centrifuge enrichment facilities.
   Last Tuesday, the Department of Energy announced that it had signed an agreement with U.S. Enrichment Corp. Inc., of Bethesda, Md., for the company to build a new gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant within a decade at one of its gaseous diffusion plant sites in either Paducah, Ky., or Portsmouth, Ohio.
   Under terms of the agreement, USEC would continue to operate the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant until the new plant is operational. USEC plans to demonstrate centrifuge performance in Oak Ridge and based on the success, a "lead cascade" testing facility will be built and operated at one of the gaseous diffusion plants, with construction of a commercial centrifuge plant to follow later.
   Another major competitor for enrichment services is Urenco, which operates enrichment facilities in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany.
   Louisiana Energy Services -- a partnership made up of Urenco, Exelon, Duke Energy, Louisiana Light & Power, and Fluor Daniel -- also is in the midst of a site selection process and intends to submit a license application to the NRC in December for an enrichment facility. The partnership intends to use Urenco gas centrifuge technology currently operating at three plants in the Netherlands, United Kingdom and Germany, according to Tim Johnson of the NRC.
   "They haven't informed us of the sites they're evaluating, so I can't give you any more detailed information," Johnson said. "They probably are going to cut their site-selection list down to about three, probably in another month or so, but they have not officially announced any location that they are looking at."
   Johnson could not confirm whether LES is the same company which is considering a 100-acre site in Unicoi County for creation of a gas centrifuge enrichment facility.
   Last week, Unicoi County Executive Paul Monk and state Rep. Zane Whitson announced that the county was one of three locations being considered for a $1 billion uranium enrichment plant, dubbed "The Tinker Road Project," which would employ gas centrifuge technology used in "the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and elsewhere."
   The plant, touted as the cure to the county's economic ills, "is a once-in-a lifetime economic opportunity for Unicoi County, as well as the towns of Unicoi and Erwin," Monk said. Potential tax revenues created by the plant could reverse three years of budget cuts affecting Unicoi County's 2,480 public school students, according to a press release issued by Monk.
   "Gov. Don Sundquist and the state of Tennessee are solidly behind the plant project," said Monk. "We have already enlisted the support of county commissioners, the mayors and aldermen of the towns of Erwin and Unicoi, county school board members and other community leaders.
   "If we are successful in locating the plant in Unicoi County, it can have an extraordinarily positive impact on our schools, employment, retail sales, housing and much more," he said.
   Whitson estimated the plant could increase Unicoi County's property tax by $9 million.
   In 1995, Rep. Whitson and state Sen. Tommy Haun sponsored a bill in the Tennessee Legislature on behalf of Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. of Erwin to modify the definition of "commercial facility" under the hazardous waste law in order to help NFS land 60 "high-paying jobs" through a contract to clean up mixed waste from the K-25 plant in Oak Ridge. Although the legislators were successful in getting the bill passed, the contract for NFS fell through.
   According to the NRC's Johnson, there has never been a full-scale operating commercial facility in the United States that uses gas centrifuge.
   "The Department of Energy has had a gas centrifuge testing program that went up until the 1980s," Johnson said. "In fact, they built a cascade at Portsmouth, Ohio, and they decided to close that operation down and focus their attention on another technique called Atomic Vapor Laser Isotope Separation or AVLIS. The technology was transferred to USEC when it was privatized in 1998, and about a year after the privatization, USEC decided not to continue to pursue that technology."
   USEC currently uses gaseous diffusion technology developed during the Manhattan Project at its facility in Paducah, which was built in the early 1960s, Johnson said. "It's not as economical to operate as gas centrifuge. It does what they need it to do, which is enrich uranium, but it's very power intensive, requires a lot of electricity, and the cost for doing that is projected to be substantially higher than for gas centrifuge, so that's why they're going to the modern technology."
   In January 2000, USEC signed a $725 million contract with Tennessee Valley Authority, agreeing to provide uranium enrichment services and uranium feed to fuel TVA's Sequoyah and Watts Bar reactors. Later in 2000, USEC and TVA signed a deal for TVA to supply 10 years of low-cost electricity to USEC's Paducah, Ky., plant. It also was agreed that TVA would become USEC's primary electricity provider as USEC's contracts expire.
   Johnson said the demand for uranium enrichment services worldwide is about 34 million Separative Work Units, or SWUs, annually. "Within the United States, it's about 10-11 million SWUs per year," he said.
   In March, Louisiana Energy Services presented information to the NRC indicating it wants to license and construct a 3 million SWU plant. The plant would consist of six 500,000 SWU cascades. Urenco currently has a capacity of about 5 million SWU, about 15 percent of the world enrichment market, and provides enrichment services in Western Europe, the United States and Asia. LES staff indicated Urenco has a large future order book and in 2001 its revenues were approximately $423 million.
   LES staff told the NRC that in order to go forward with the project, it would need an "assured licensing process that is short and predictable." It would also need customer commitment, access to a U.S. depleted uranium tails disposition route, and a site on an existing nuclear facility site. It indicated the site would not be restricted to any specific facility type.
   When asked about the Tipton Road Project, which is located about 8 miles from Nuclear Fuel Services, Johnson said, "They haven't informed us exactly what their criteria is, but it would seem to me that at a location that has a nuclear facility doesn't necessarily mean immediately adjacent to or on the property of one, so it potentially could be several miles away."
   LES said its goal is to select the site in the second quarter of Calendar Year 2002 and to submit to the NRC a license application and an environmental report in the fourth quarter. The first 500,000 SWU cascade is planned to be online by 2006 with full capacity projected in 2010 or 2011, depending on market demand.
   Centrifuges would be assembled onsite from kits received from Europe. For a 3 million SWU plant, LES estimated the gas centrifuge facility would require 8,600 tons of feed (uranium hexafluoride) per year. It also would produce 7,800 tons of depleted uranium, 800 tons of enriched product, and 12 tons of unprocessed low-level waste annually.
   This is not the first time LES has attempted to build a gas centrifuge enrichment facility. In 1989 it proposed a private uranium enrichment plant near Homer, La., called the Claiborne Enrichment Center, which was to be built in one of the state's poorest counties, where 30 percent of residents (population: 50 percent black) were below the poverty line.
   When the company broke ground in 1992, LES said it would pay $10 million to the county school board as a one-time "use tax" on equipment. Later, the plant would pay $8 million a year in taxes and double the county's tax base. LES was going to provide about 400 jobs during construction and an estimated 180 jobs when complete. (The Tipton Road Project also would provide about 400 construction jobs and up to 250 permanent jobs.)
   A series of safety complaints by environmental groups and a directive from President Clinton on "environmental justice," aimed at protecting minorities from disproportionate exposure to pollution, delayed the LES licensing process seven years.
   "It got into a hearing process ... and I guess it was around 1996, it was taking too long, so LES decided to drop the project," Johnson said.