- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2008

BOISE, Idaho

Companies are racing to provide radioactive fuel for America’s nuclear renaissance, and are powering debate along the way.

Even as the government continues to oppose Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium for power plants, projects to do just that are under way in this country. GE and USEC, along with European rivals Urenco and Areva are pushing billions worth of new U.S. enrichment plants or technology so they don’t miss the new uranium boom.

Opponents, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, fear that sends the wrong message to countries like Iran. The group argues it is not clear the U.S. really needs new facilities, when it could just import nuclear fuel from elsewhere.

Still, shipments from Russia, which now supplies 40 percent of enriched uranium for U.S. commercial reactors, are due to be cut in half by 2013. And an aging enrichment facility in Paducah, Ky., is expected to be shuttered.

That means power plants here will have to fill the vacuum, including from new domestic suppliers.

“Even if the nuclear renaissance didn’t happen, the U.S. will need more enrichment services to respond to their existing domestic needs,” said Laurence Pernot, a spokeswoman for Areva in Bethesda, Md.

Promoters tout nuclear power as an antidote to coal-fired plants that contribute to global warming. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission took applications to build seven new nuclear reactors in 2007, with 25 more licensing requests expected through 2009.

Officials from French-owned Areva have been tromping around eastern Idaho’s lava and sagebrush steppe since last year near the 850-square-mile Idaho National Laboratory site, where American scientists have conducted nuclear research since 1949. Now, the company is trying to coax the state legislature into giving it tax breaks to make building in Idaho more attractive.

If it doesn’t get them, Areva says it could build elsewhere.

Meanwhile, GE is working on a laser process for enriching uranium at a test facility in North Carolina and has indicated its intent to apply for a full-scale project, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Urenco, with enrichment operations in Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, is part of a consortium whose $1.5 billion enrichment facility has spawned a boom town in southeastern New Mexico. The plant is expected to open next year.

And Maryland-based USEC is building its American Centrifuge plant in the Ohio town of Piketon and expects to enrich enough uranium there by 2012 to supply a quarter of existing U.S. demand.

“Multiple enrichment facilities provide customers with diversity of supply and competition,” said Jeremy Derryberry, a USEC spokesman. “We believe the market can support all current planned enrichment capacity.”

Yellowcake uranium is mined and milled at 20 sites in the United States, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as well as in Australia, Canada and Kazakhstan. Once out of the ground, the ore is converted into uranium hexafluoride that’s shipped in metal cylinders to an enrichment plant. Uranium pellets are then taken to a fabrication plant, where they are put into fuel rods that fire reactors at nuclear power plants.

The 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S. get about 85 percent of their uranium from other countries, including the Russian program “Megatons for Megawatts” program, a 15-year-old program in which warheads are converted to nuclear fuel and shipped to U.S. commercial reactors.


That program, however, is expected to end in 2013. A replacement agreement would bring in only about half the enriched uranium of the existing deal.

What’s more, once USEC’s new Ohio plant is completed, it plans to close its aging facility in Paducah, which is now the only operating enrichment plant in the United States.

“We do not have adequate enrichment capacity for the existing demand that there is,” said Felix Killar, the senior director for fuel supply for the Nuclear Energy Institute lobbying group in Washington. “It’s going to be a tight market for some period of time.”

As enrichment fever grows, however, the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington is watching with unease, on grounds this activity undermines U.S. credibility with Iran. The U.S. and some of its allies oppose Iran’s expansion of its enrichment facilities, saying it could lead to the development of nuclear weapons.

“The U.S. has said Iran doesn’t need nuclear power because of its oil and natural gas reserves,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist. “Iran turns around and says, ‘We want to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, just like you do.’ There’s this kind of doubletalk.”

Mr. Lyman said it’s also unclear whether the U.S. really needs new enrichment facilities, when it could instead lift import restrictions from other countries.

“There’s a kind of heady gold rush going on,” Mr. Lyman said. “But it will be a long time before it’s really clear what’s realistically justified.”

The Snake River Alliance, an Idaho anti-nuclear group, argues enrichment plants are accompanied by health and environmental hazards. USEC’s Paducah facility, for instance, has been targeted by federal lawsuits because of chemicals that contaminate groundwater there after a half-century of operations.

The Idaho group also criticizes Areva’s attempt to secure tax breaks for its project.

“It’s quite apparent that Areva is looking for a good deal of financial incentive to build a plant here,” said Beatrice Brailsford, the group’s program director in Pocatello. “It’s simply a poor investment for both public money and public resources.”

Still, Idaho Falls, where the Idaho National Laboratory is the largest employer and many residents are comfortable with the idea of reactors in their back yard, wants the plant, which would employ about 250 people.

Ron Longmore, Bonneville County’s elected clerk, calculates the Areva facility would generate about $4 million annually in new property taxes, even with the proposed tax breaks.

“We already have top scientists, those people associated with the Idaho National Laboratory,” said Mr. Longmore. “It would be a clean industry that would fit right in with our environment.”

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