Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
Most New Mexicans probably don’t know it, but the small desert town of Eunice in southeastern New Mexico is supplying one-fourth of all the fuel needed to run the country’s 100 nuclear power plants and, in just a few years, that will grow to 50 percent.
In fact, the tiny town of Eunice, with a population of 3,200, is now home to the only uranium enrichment facility operating in the U.S. today.
But anyone traveling along Highway 18 through Eunice would never know it, because the plant – built and operated by URENCO USA – isn’t visible from the road. It only becomes noticeable when actually arriving at the facility, which occupies about 640 acres of land – or about one square mile – east of the highway.
URENCO, which to date has invested about $4 billion in the facility, has been steadily ramping up operations since June 2010, when its first production unit came online to separate heavy isotopes from light ones in uranium to provide the enriched material needed for the fission process in nuclear reactors to take place.
Since then, the facility has steadily increased its output as more units come online, reaching the 25 percent national fuel supply point by April 2014.
“We’ve completed the first two phases of the construction process and we’re now building out phase three,” said URENCO Vice President of Communications and External Affairs Clint Williamson. “When all three phases are complete by 2022, we’ll be supplying 50 percent of the U.S. market. And if more nuclear plants get built, we can add capacity here to meet rising demand faster than any generating facility can become operational.”
The company’s operations have proven a boon for the local economy in Lea County. The plant currently employs 350 permanent workers, with 600 still working in construction, said Ruth Giron, head of human resources and organizational development. It has an annual payroll of $55 million.
The company offered Leadership New Mexico a guided tour of the facility in late March, allowing a Journal reporter and photographer to accompany them in viewing the plant’s inner workings, some of which were considered proprietary and were closed to the public until recently.
On the whole, the plant seems more like a sleek, high-tech warehouse where massive containers that hold uranium-related material are being stored or moved around among humongous rooms, some the size of several football fields.
But it’s the plant’s inner core, where uranium hexaflouride is spun into enriched uranium, where the real action takes place. That’s where massive “cascades” of centrifuges are used to separate U-238 and U-235 from one another.
Those are the two isotopes contained in uranium hexaflouride gas. The U-235 is what’s needed to sustain nuclear fission and, in its natural state, the uranium hexaflouride has only a 0.7 percent concentration of U-235.
The company uses state-of-the-art centrifuge technology to literally spin the U-238 and U-235 away from one another, with the heavier U-238 moving to the outside of the centrifuges in the process, and the lighter U-235 concentrating in the center, said URENCO Head of Compliance Steve Cowne.
“We increase the amount of U-235 in a given quantity of uranium and move out the U-238,” Cowne said. “A typical power plant runs with uranium enriched to between 3 and 5 percent of U-235.”
The uranium hexaflouride is fed into the centrifuge cylinders, or tubes, which are stacked next to each other in rows, or cascades, that include hundreds, if not thousands, of cylinders.
“They’re big, long, tall cylinders where the uranium hexaflouride is fed through the top and then spins very fast as it passes down through it,” Cowne said. “One centrifuge is not enough to enrich the uranium to the level needed, so it gets passed on and on from one centrifuge to the next in a cascading process until it comes out the other end with enriched U-235 and a depleted uranium byproduct.”
The byproduct, or tailings, are then stored in huge cylinders and the enriched U-235 is packaged in separate containers for shipment to plants elsewhere in the country where it’s converted into fuel pellets and then placed in fuel rods for use in nuclear reactors.
URENCO’s centrifuge-cascade process has proven far more economical than the traditional “gas diffusion” enrichment process. That process relies on huge amounts of energy to force uranium hexaflouride through membranes to separate out the isotopes. The last such plant operating in the U.S. – a U.S. Department of Energy facility in Kentucky run by U.S. Enrichment Corp. – recently closed down because it couldn’t compete with centrifuge technology, Cowne said.
The centrifuge technology itself is well known. It’s the cascade arrangements, the number of centrifuges and the amount of processing conducted through the tubes to reach desired enrichment levels that constitute URENCO’s secret sauce, Cowne said. As a result, tour participants could only view a small section of the cascades, although even that was prohibited until recently.
The plant itself basically operates as a service center for customers who provide the uranium hexaflouride and specify the level of enrichment they want.
“We don’t produce a product, we provide a service,” Cowne said.
In the first two phases of plant construction, URENCO brought two chambers with 24 cascades each online, providing production capacity equal to 25 percent of fuel needs by U.S. power plants. The third phase, now under construction, will increase total cascades to 72, with centrifuges coming online a few at a time over the next seven years to bring capacity to 50 percent of U.S. demand by 2022.
“We have 52 cascades running now, with the last one coming online in March,” Cowne said. “We’ll have 60 running by January 2016.”
Between URENCO USA and its parent firm, URENCO Ltd., the company actually controls a lot more of the U.S. nuclear fuel market. The parent company – which is jointly owned by two German utilities in partnership with the U.K. and Dutch governments – has three enrichment plants in Europe that also supply U.S. plants.
In addition, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a new license in March for URENCO USA to continue enriching the byproduct left over from previous runs through the cascades, and to expand the facility into fourth and fifth phases of construction. But further buildouts depend on market demand in the U.S. and other countries.