Saturday, June 6, 2009

Barking up the wrong tree

Snake River Alliance testimony at NRC hearing targets issues from its own agenda

Idaho’s self-appointed nuclear watchdog, the Snake River Alliance (SRA), proved what everyone knows, and that is having one around sometimes results in a lot of barking at the wrong things.

Ducks on the lawnFor instance, dogs in our neighborhood here in Idaho Falls will bark at all kinds of harmless birds including morning doves, magpies, and even the occasional ducks that migrate from nearby irrigation canals to backyards to see what’s there to eat.

Mostly, the dogs bark because they are bored or lonely while kids are away at school and parents at work, and so they extend their territorial barking to address anything that moves out of the shear novelty of being heard.

The dog’s own voice tells the astute human the barking isn’t the real “warning bark” that responds to the unknown intruder in the dead of night. It is more of a case, from the dog’s point of view, of “I know I’m supposed to bark at stuff that moves, and since the ducks and morning doves are all I’ve got, that’s what I’ll bark at.”

This is pretty much how things went at the NRC environmental scoping meeting on Areva’s license application for the Eagle Rock Uranium Enrichment Plant. The SRA, which barks at all things nuclear, whether they move or not, also demonstrated the morning doves plus magpies, and ducks, equation works equally well for self-appointed human watchdogs.

Meanwhile, the 30-month long licensing process for the $2.4 billion plant moves at a stately pace guided by regulatory milestones that must be met. A lot of people urged the NRC to move faster, but the agency is required to lay down a complete record of its review and it will take the usual amount of time. The good news the NRC has already licensed a facility just like the planned Areva plant so this isn’t a first-of-kind exercise for the agency.

Key steps in the licensing proces

The hearing did not go to the dogs. Far from it, the NRC kept things moving with an effective facilitator and a three-to-five minute time limit for oral presentations. The NRC also demonstrated how seriously it takes the licensing process and the environmental scoping step by turning out an “A-list” team of nearly a dozen people including Patricia Bubar of the NRC Environmental Office who has long experience with radioactive materials.

nrc logoTwo key documents which the NRC must write are a Safety Evaluation Report and a Final Environmental Impact Statement. The environmental report requires a public scoping meeting in which the NRC takes testimony on what issues the public thinks the agency ought to consider in its evaluation. To see what a completed process looks like, visit the NRC web page on the license for the LES plant in New Mexico which already has a license and is now under construction.

The public is free to submit any issue it wants, but the NRC is bound by its own regulations and federal law in terms of what it actually can consider as part of the review. In its slide presentation given at the public meeting held June 4 at the Shilo Inn in Idaho Falls, the NRC said that it will identify the significant issues and eliminate those that are unimportant.

In this blog post I’ll focus on just two of the issues that the SRA raised because the errors in their statements are serious and need to be corrected before anyone gets any funny ideas. The SRA also said the Areva plant was a proliferation risk, but this statement ignores the fact that only the federal government makes HEU and that work is done at Oak Ridge in Tennessee.

Barking at the wrong issues - numbers

AndreaShipleyThe Snake River Alliance (SRA) turned out about a half dozen of its folks including Andrea Shipley, (right) the group’s young executive director, and Beatrice Brailsford, based in Pocatello, who is well-known in eastern Idaho for her long standing and outspoken opposition to all things nuclear, a record she is proud of.

Where things went wrong was in their assertions that there is no “need” for the enrichment facility relative to market demand and that the depleted uranium from the gas centrifuge process would be a threat to Idaho for decades if not centuries.

Need for enrichment services

On the issue of need, current demand for enriched uranium in the U.S. is met by a combination of domestic sources and imports. Less than 50% of U.S. requirements are met by imports of blended down HEU from Russia under the “Megatons-to-Megawatts” program that ends in 2013.

The Snake River Alliance’s representatives submitting testimony repeatedly got this number wrong pegging it at 90%. The U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, reported in May 2009, that total U.S. demand for the previous 12 months was 13 million SWU. Russian origin fuel was 38% of the U.S. total.

Uranium enrichmentFuture demand for enriched uranium through the middle of the next decade is pegged at 12-15 million SWU where “SWU’ is a uranium industry measure of the U-235 isotope at 3-5% enrichment from natural background of 0.7%. To meet growing demand not one, but three uranium enrichment plants are being built in the U.S.

Louisiana Energy Services, a U.S. domestic subsidiary of Europe’s Urenco, will complete construction and spool up a 3.0 million SWU. The Areva plant as originally proposed is designed to produce 3.3 million SWU, and a third plant that is also licensed and under construction by USEC in Ohio will produce 3.8 million SWU when it, like the other two, is in full production by 2014. This brings projected U.S. production to a total of 10.1 million SWU against demand of 12-15 SWU. There is so much need that money is being left on the table.

The Russians will continue to sell enriched uranium to U.S. utilities, and with recent changes in the international agreements that govern the sales, will be able to achieve about a 25% market share. This accounts for about 2.5-3.0 million SWU. Recently, Russia’s Rosatom inked deals with four U.S. utilities including PG&E, Ameren, Progress, and Exelon.

What this means is that as the U.S. market demand grows, driven in part by new plants coming on line in the next decade, and first loads for reactors, both LES and Areva has asked the NRC, as marketing contingencies, to authorize them to double the size of their plants. These changes would bring LES to 6.0 SWU and the Eagle Rock plant to 6.6 million SWU. USEC is also expected to expand their plant.

Jacques Besnainou2That’s not the end of the demand curve. In a telephone interview on Friday, June 5, Areva North American President Jacques Besnainou (right) told me he sees U.S. demand rising to 20 million SWU by the end of the next decade. Readers should know that Areva executives are cautious about releasing numbers like this. So it follows that this estimate is already well-understood in the industry and is not proprietary information.

In the end the Snake River Alliance’s statement there is no need for the plant is incorrect. There is no other way to put it.

Barking at the wrong issues – waste

The Snake River Alliance also raised the issue of how Areva will deal with the uranium left over from the gas centrifuge enrichment process. This waste stream is really nothing more than the original uranium with the U-235 isotopes spun out of it for use as nuclear fuel. The remainder is stored in gas form as uranium hexafluoride (UF6). It is called “depleted uranium” because the U-235 isotopes that naturally occurs in it has been removed via the centrifuge arrays the plant uses to make fuel for commercial nuclear reactors.

Uranium-hexafluorideThe fluorine is valuable and International Isotopes (otc:inis), an Idaho Falls firm, is building a $55 million plant in New Mexico to recover it from the UF6. As Areva’s plant comes online, either International Isotopes or Areva itself will recover the fluorine gas. Areva has been conducting what is called “uranium deconversion” at its enrichment plants in France for over two decades.

Once the fluorine is removed from the depleted uranium, it can be safely disposed of in a licensed landfill. The reason is the uranium is now in powder form and is entirely composed of the native form as U-238. There are three such disposal facilities in the west including one near Mountain Home, ID, one about 90 miles west of Salt Lake City, and one in Andrews, TX, just over the border from Eunice, NM, which is where the LES plant is being built and will come online this December.

The Snake River Alliance charged that Areva would abandon the UF6 as an waste that could pollute the aquifer. This is a patently false statement since the commercial value of the fluorine insures that uranium deconversion will process the UF6 to make high purity fluorine and safely dispose of the remaining U-238 uranium at a licensed landfill.

In summary, and in the fullest meaning of the idiomatic phrase, Idaho’s self-appointed nuclear watchdog is barking up the wrong tree in its public testimony submitted to the NRC about Areva’s license application.

Wrong tree right tree

EricSimpsonAbout 150 people turned out for the meeting and most testified in favor of it including Idaho’ entire congressional delegation and the governor all of whom sent statements of support. State Rep. Eric Simpson (R-Idaho Falls) (right) took aim at the SRA’s contentions.

He said, “I am all for open debate but let’s make sure it is honest debate.”

Testifying in support of the license application, Bob Skinner, Vice President of the Partnership for Science & Technology, said,

clip_image002We believe any issues raised during the scoping period that are not directly related to the assessment of potential impacts of the project or to the decision- making process should be dismissed from the draft EIS and discussed in other venues.

We have had the opportunity to study AREVA’s environmental report that was submitted along with the application and we found the report to be extremely thorough.

We feel, after application of the best management practices and mitigation measures outlined in the report, the unavoidable environmental and safety impacts from the facility will be small and acceptable.

Ann Rydalch, of Idaho Falls, who has been elected to multiple terms in both the Idaho Senate and the House, pointed out that no Idaho taxes will be used to build or support the facility.

Linda Martin, the CEO of Grow Idaho Falls, an economic development group that played an important role in convincing Areva to come to Idaho, testified that the plant will bring millions in tax revenues to Idaho along with its payrolls from the construction and permanent workforces.

Want to know more?


The NRC has two web pages with information on the licensing process for Areva’s Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility.

How to contact the NRC

If you have questions or comments on Arveva’s license application, you can send email to:

The NRC also named two of its key employees on the project as public points of contact. They are;

Areva Information

  • Areva’s Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility has its own web page
  • Areva also provides updates on its work via its own US blog

International Isotopes, and its work on uranium deconversion, has been the subject of three comprehensive reports on this blog.

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