Recruiters still hope USEC will build a gas centrifuge facility at Paducah. LES is now looking at two other states.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
Louisiana Energy Services told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Friday morning that it has narrowed the search to Hartsville, Tenn., and Bellefonte, Ala. LES spokeswoman Nan Kilkeary said the firm will announce before Sept. 15 where it will build a gas centrifuge facility to enrich uranium for use in nuclear fuel.
USEC is racing with LES — a consortium headed by European competitor Urenco — to deploy the technology, which is far cheaper and more efficient than the outdated process used by the 1,500-employee Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said the firm will decide by year's end whether to build a test plant in Paducah or Piketon, Ohio, where it has a closed diffusion plant.
"We will submit an application to the NRC no later than April 2003," she said.
LES wants to add competition to the domestic enrichment market to keep USEC from controlling prices. It has targeted December for an application, seeking to be in commercial operation by 2008, about two years earlier than USEC. Earlier this year, USEC signed an agreement with the Department of Energy to have a commercial centrifuge plant running at Piketon by 2009 or Paducah by 2010.
Ken Wheeler, chairman of a local nuclear-energy recruitment task force, said the LES decision has no bearing on his group's work.
"Clearly, if I were in LES' shoes, I wouldn't be thinking about building my plant right next door to my competition, so I don't feel bad that they didn't see fit to keep us on their list," he said. "It was no surprise to us. I didn't think we were a likely candidate for LES."
Wheeler said USEC is legally bound to build a centrifuge plant or turn the Paducah diffusion plant back to the Energy Department, which owns it. LES' rationale is purely financial, but it is questionable whether the market can support two centrifuge plants, he said.
"I think LES is moving ahead to get a license to site a plant," Wheeler said. "Whether they actually ante up the billion-dollar investment remains to be seen."
According to NRC records, LES told the commission it would build the plant on an existing nuclear site and that the selection would "address low seismic hazard, no previous contamination, moderate climate and redundant high-quality electrical supplies." While Kentucky’s climate is moderate and it has some of the lowest power costs in the nation, the Paducah diffusion plant is heavily contaminated and sits over the New Madrid Fault.
LES officials said earlier that the threat of an earthquake was a serious consideration for any site because it increases the design and construction costs of a centrifuge facility.
Forty-foot-tall centrifuge cylinders spin at high speed to produce nuclear fuel material by separating the useful and non-useful isotopes of uranium hexafluoride, or UF6. They use about a third of the electricity of gaseous diffusion, which does the work via miles of pressurized piping.
Wheeler said he doesn't know why Paducah was rejected from about 12 sites that LES initially scouted. But he said his task force is working with the state to clarify considerable "misinformation" about Paducah's earthquake situation.
"We spent time with them (state officials) this week and will do so again next week to try to firm up exactly what issues will be raised," Wheeler said, referring to USEC's decision whether to put the centrifuge plant in Paducah or Piketon.
USEC's agreement with the Energy Department gives the company first rights to non-leased DOE land at Piketon or Paducah for use in developing centrifuge. Asked whether that issue, or the seismic concern, played a significant role in eliminating Paducah, Kilkeary said she was not really sure.
"We had a whole lot of evaluation criteria, and we ranked every site on the list numerically," she said. "These two sites (Tennessee and Alabama) came out considerably ahead of the others."
She said the criteria included environmental and seismic concerns, water, power, and land size.