NM uranium enrichment plant considering expansion

AP News
Posted: Mar 14, 2011 6:19 PM
NM uranium enrichment plant considering expansion

A company building a $3 billion uranium enrichment plant in New Mexico said it wants to expand the project and insisted the facility poses no danger because it's built to withstand earthquakes and doesn't produce nuclear power.

The statement was made Saturday by Gregory Smith, president and CEO of Urenco USA, amid mounting concerns about the safety of nuclear power after a devastating earthquake and tsunami damaged nuclear reactors in Japan.

Smith released the memo first reported by the Hobbs News-Sun to reassure New Mexico lawmakers and residents near the plant.

"Even though Urenco USA is not a nuclear power plant and does not present hazards like those regulated in nuclear power plants, we construct and operate under strict Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations," he wrote.

Jayne Hallett, a spokeswoman at Urenco corporate headquarters near London, told The Associated Press on Monday the company could not comment on what the disaster in Japan might mean for the nuclear power industry.

"Our thoughts at the moment are with the Japanese people and what they're having to cope with," she said.

Elsewhere in the world, Germany's government temporarily halted plans to extend the life of its 17 nuclear power plants after two explosions at one Japanese plant spread jitters in Europe about atomic energy safety.

Neighboring Switzerland suspended plans to build and replace nuclear plants, and Austria's environment minister called for atomic stress tests to make sure Europe's nuclear facilities are earthquake-proof.

In the U.S., the Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the nuclear power industry, had not seen U.S. policymakers rushing to judgment because of the situation in Japan, said Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Washington-based institute.

"Events in Japan are going to have to play out, but we don't feel there is going to be any real impact on what's going on in the United States," he said.

Smith said Urenco was considering an expansion of the southwestern New Mexico nuclear enrichment facility based on anticipated demand by customers _ particularly those in Asia. But no final determination has been made on whether the additional investment would pay off, he said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the company board would have to approve another expansion before it could begin.

The plant is using an enrichment process that employs centrifuges to separate uranium isotopes so it can be used by nuclear power plants.

Last June, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission authorized startup of the plant, the first major nuclear facility licensed in the United States in three decades. It's now operating at about 10 percent of capacity.

Urenco announced a previous expansion in 2008, even before operations began. That increased the price tag from $2 billion to $3 billion and extended construction into 2014.

An additional expansion would extend the construction period to 2017.

Smith said the cost increase from a third phase should be less, given the infrastructure investments already made.

"We have to do it for less," he said. "We have to do things smarter and more efficient, not only in design but competitive on pricing."

When the second phase is done in 2014, the site will have the capacity to produce 25 percent of the nation's enriched uranium fuel needs.

The plant originally was known as the National Enrichment Facility but was changed to Urenco USA/LES last year.