Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Areva doubles its bet in Idaho

NRC license application for Idaho Eagle Rock uranium enrichment plant will change

arevaAreva Enrichment Services has asked the NRC to change its license application to double the capacity of the planned $2.4 billion ‘Eagle Rock’ Enrichment Facility in Idaho Falls. The change in the license application was reported April 22 by the Idaho Business Review (IBR) and by World Nuclear News in London.  The full text of Areva's March 31, 2009, letter to the NRC, which is now part of the agency's public record for the license application, was made available by Areva Enrichment Services

The assumption that Areva is planning to double the size of the plant has been an open secret here in Idaho Falls for months. The reason is that Louisiana Energy Services, which is building a similar plant in Eunice, NM, announced last November it was doubling the size of its plant, now under construction, from 3.0 to 5.9 million SWU. That plant is expected to spool up its centrifuges in December of this year. (See URL below)

Areva’s original license application, submitted in December 2008, called for a capacity of 3.3 million separative work units (SWU) per year. This is the basic measure used to keep track of uranium enrichment production. Both online sources cited above said the revised application, which reportedly will be submitted on April 23, would increase that capacity to 6.6 million SWU per year.

By comparison, USEC’s planned uranium enrichment plant in Ohio is currently designed to produce 3.8 million SWU. Taken together the three plants could meet about 75-80% of US demand for enrichment uranium by 2018.

Impact of license change

Bob Poyser, vice president of operations for Areva’s Eagle Rock facility, told the Idaho Business Review the change would require the construction of two additional separations buildings.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of interest in nuclear power plants. Obviously, nuclear is moving forward on a worldwide scale. We hope it will go ahead in the U.S. We just want to be positioned to take advantage of that demand that might be there.”

Poyser told the IBR Areva still intends to build to its initial 3.3 million SWU capacity, though the license revision will give it more flexibility.  In short, it is a marketing contingency.  Even if Areva exercises the option, it won't occur until 2018.

“If we can get the licensing part out of the way we’d be in a good position to expand if we needed to."

Construction on the $2.4 billion facility is expected to begin as early as 2011. The Eagle Rock plant will reach a production level of 3.3 million SWU per year by 2018, and 6.6 million SWU by 2022. Much depends on whether contracts sold ahead of completion of construction are still ready to be executed by customers at the time plant production reaches the point where expansion is needed to meet demand.

Areva’s application was accepted for a full review by the NRC in late March. Poyser told the IBR the license revision won’t substantially affect the review process, which is expected to take about 30 months.

“Licensing activity is very arduous, so we might as well do it while we’re doing it once.”

Financing Eagle Rock

Also, Areva is competing head-to-head with USEC for $2 billion federal loan guarantees available for uranium enrichment plants. Even if Areva doesn’t get the nod, it has other options such as offering minority equity positions in the plant to customers. It has already pursued this financing model with its George Besse II plant in France.

LES has not applied for a loan guarantee. It is being built by Urenco, a Dutch firm. USEC has had difficulties raising investment capital, but says publically it will find the funds to proceed with construction.

Prior coverage on this blog

Update April 24, 2009

Areva has posted a statement about the NRC regulatory filings on its North American blog.

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