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. asurion customer service