New Mexico hasn’t had a uranium boom since 1950. After Navajo shepherd Paddy Martinez woke up from his nap, beneath a limestone ledge with a handful of funny looking yellow rocks, only to be later told he had discovered New Mexico’s first uranium, the state was swarmed with thousands of prospectors hoping to cash in on the nuclear metal.
Another uranium boom may now be in progress. This time, the charge is led by the European consortium Urenco Ltd, general partner of Louisiana Energy Services (LES), which was issued a draft license, this past Friday, by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build and operate a $1.5 billion uranium enrichment plant in Lea County, New Mexico. Louisiana Energy Services is a Urenco-managed partnership, whose members include Exelon Corp, Entergy Corp and Duke Energy Corp. This is the first permit issued for a uranium enrichment facility in thirty years; the first ever to a private company.
Announcement of the uranium enrichment facility came nine days after International Uranium Corporation (IUC) announced it was reopening its uranium mines in the Four Corners region of the western United States. In a company news release, Ron Hochstein, president of IUC, announced, “We intend on utilizing our large capacity mill to its full advantage through toll milling contracts with other future miners in the area…” The company’s White Mesa Mill, only one of two operational uranium mills in the United States, is across from the New Mexico border.
Uranium development companies have acquired uranium properties, abandoned by major oil companies during the uranium drought of the 1980s and 1990s, and could be well positioned to advance those properties through the permitting process. Over the past year, newer uranium companies have entered the state, optimistic the record-high spot uranium price may help finance their exploration and development costs in New Mexico.
With a uranium mill, just past the western border of New Mexico in neighboring Utah, and the soon-to-be-built uranium enrichment facility in southeastern New Mexico, when might the state again become a world-class production center? Only over the past few years has Canada’s Athabasca Basin, with its ultra-high grades of uranium ore, surpassed the cumulative production of New Mexico. The Grants Mineral Belt in northern New Mexico produced more than 340 million pounds of uranium oxide (U3O8, yellowcake) before the uranium depression of the 1980s and 1990s brought New Mexico mining to a standstill. The Grants Mineral Belt produced about 40 percent of all the mined uranium in the United States.
Who is Urenco?
Urenco is short for Uranium Enrichment Company. Three countries – Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom – signed the Treaty of Alemlo (Netherlands) on March 4, 1970 as a way to collaborate in developing centrifuge technology for uranium enrichment. In 1971, three industrial partners – British Nuclear Fuels plc (BNFL), Ultra-Centrifuge Nederland N.V. (UCN) and Uranit GmbH – founded Urenco Ltd. The company has since spun off its Enrichment Technology Company. There are now three wholly owned subsidiaries, based in each of the respective countries.
The Louisiana Energy Services partnership plans on building the National Enrichment Facility (NEF) about five miles east of Eunice, New Mexico. The NEF plans on providing a sustainable domestic supply of slightly enriched uranium, also called ‘low enriched uranium’ or LEU, using Urenco’s gas centrifuge technology. Currently, USEC is the other uranium enrichment facility, using the more expensive gaseous diffusion technology. USEC is a publicly traded company, created under the Clinton-Gore Administration for the purposes of the Russia-US ‘swords for plowshares’ HEU deal. Under the HEU agreement, Russia’s counterpart supplied USEC with uranium from decommissioned Russian nuclear weapons. This uranium now supplies U.S. utilities with about 50 percent of the uranium used to power domestic nuclear power plants.
In 2001, the domestic uranium industry only produced 12 percent of its required supply of enriched uranium, while Russia exported 55 percent to the United States. Urenco supplied 16 percent of the U.S. demand. Urenco plans to increase its percentage of enriched uranium to about one-quarter of U.S. enrichment demand, once the plant is running at full capacity. This amounts to annual production of 3 million Separative Work Units (SWUs). A Separative Work Unit is the unit used to express the effort necessary to separate U-235 and U-238. The capacity of enrichment plants is measured in tons SW per year. For example, a large nuclear power station with a net electrical capacity of 1300 MW requires an annual amount of 25 tons SW (enriched uranium) to operate (with a concentration of 3.5 percent U-235).
The National Enrichment Facility will become Urenco’s North American debut of the company’s gas centrifuge technology, which the company boasts is the ‘world’s most advanced, energy-efficient and cost-effective uranium enrichment technology.’ It has reportedly been used for more than thirty years.
What is Gas Centrifuge Technology?
Only 0.7 percent of the weight of natural uranium, the U-235 isotope found in nature’s uranium, is the isotope needed to power a nuclear reactor. The U-235 isotope is the one that splits inside the core. It is this isotope which releases energy in the fission process. Because natural uranium can not power a nuclear reactor, the concentration of U-235 must be slightly increased, also known as ‘low enrichment,’ from 0.7 percent to between 3 and 5 percent. The enrichment occurs during the centrifuge process.
It is called the ‘gas centrifuge process” because gaseous uranium hexafluoride (UF6) is fed into a cylindrical, high-speed rotor. The gas is whirled around inside thousands of centrifuges in a nearly friction-free environment, separating the fissionable U-235 isotope from the heavier U-238 isotope. The centrifugal motion pushes the heavier U-238 gas away from the useful U-235 gas, which remains closer to the rotor axis. The process is repeated until the desired enrichment percentage is achieved.
Let’s back up the process a few steps. First, the uranium is mined and milled. The finished product, which is shipped off to the conversion facility, is called yellowcake.
The next step in creating nuclear fuel for a reactor is the conversion process. The yellowcake, or U3O8, is converted into uranium hexafluoride, or UF6. Yellowcake is dissolved in nitric acid to create a new solution, uranyl nitrate. Hydrogen is then used to reduce this to UO2. This is then converted to UF4 with hydrofluoric acid. The UF6 is obtained with the uranium is oxidized with fluorine. At ambient temperatures, UF6 forms solid grey crystals. Depending upon its temperature, uranium hexafluoride can be a solid, liquid or gas.
After the U3O8 has been converted to UF6, it is transported to the enrichment site in an internationally standard transport container. The solid UF6 is heated up in an air-tight pressure vessel until it returns to its gaseous state. It is then fed into the centrifuge. The Urenco ‘gas centrifuge’ has two pipes, one which removes the enriched uranium and another which removes the heavier uranium, depleted of U-235.
Because a single centrifuge won’t enrich the uranium to the desired level, a number of centrifuges are connected together. The connected, parallel centrifuges are called a cascade. By passing through each of the centrifuges in the cascade, the U-235 is gradually enriched to the level required by the customer, a nuclear power plant.
After the desired enrichment level is achieved, the enriched UF6 gas is passed through a series of compressors and packaged into product containers. The UF6 gas is cooled until the vapors solidify onto the walls of the container. The finished product is shipped to the fuel fabrication plant where the solid, enriched uranium is manufactured into fuel pellets.
Uranium Enrichment Means Big Money
The key to expansion, after sufficient U3O8 has been mined, is ensuring the uranium is converted and enriched so that it can fuel nuclear power plants. Until now, U.S. utilities have relied upon Russian HEU to LEU supplies to fuel their nuclear reactors. Urenco’s NEF in New Mexico gives a boost to the nuclear energy sector, and provides U.S. utilities with an alternative to having uranium enriched at USEC’s Kentucky plant, or worse yet, shipping domestically produced uranium overseas for enrichment. For instance, Brazil was forced to have its uranium enriched in Europe, until recently.
Value-adding to the fuel supplying reactors can mean big money for LES, and especially for Urenco Ltd. But, the investment of $1.5 billion will also produce hundreds of new jobs for the border towns of both New Mexico and Texas. Estimates show about 800 construction jobs will be created as the facility is being built, and as many as 1200 during the peak of the construction. About 300 employees will be required to operate the facility. Nearby Andrews, Texas has been celebrating the National Enrichment Facility. The city manager expects the number of new homes under construction to jump by 10-fold this year. School enrollment has grown over the past year while newcomers have moved into the area, hoping for construction jobs.
Urenco’s National Enrichment Facility should begin construction later this summer, probably in August. Louisiana Energy Services (LES) hopes to start selling enriched uranium in 2009, probably to its U.S. utility partners, who hope to build new reactors. A statement issued by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) on Friday, congratulating LES for the approval of its NRC license pointed ahead to the U.S. expansion of the nuclear energy sector. The NEI’s chief nuclear officer, Marvin Fertel, said, “This experience bodes well for the construction and operating license applications for new nuclear power plants that are expected to be submitted to the agency beginning in 2007.”