New Mexico Plant Will Upgrade Uranium

By Bruce Higgins | September 28, 2010

Nuclear energy currently provides approximately 20 percent of the electricity in America as the second level of supply, second only to coal. The Environmental Protection Agency continues to raise the standards of emissions, increasing the cost of supplying electricity generated by coal. In addition, easily and economically mined coal sources are diminishing or increasing in other cost factors. Nuclear power generation may be entering a new era. In addition, nuclear power is called the most "eco-efficient" energy source because it is greenhouse gas emission-free. If only to meet existing demand, the current sources of enriched uranium are aging and in need of replacement and/or upgrading.


On June 23, 2006, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued the first commercial facility license in 30 years to Louisiana Energy Service (LES) to construct and operate the National Enrichment Facility (NEF) near Eunice in the southeastern corner of New Mexico. After the Three Mile Island incident, all nuclear power facilities then under construction were completed, and virtually no other projects were permitted. This uranium enrichment facility represents another milestone in addition to being the first permitted in 30 years; it is the first commercial nuclear facility to receive a combined construction and operating license.

The license applications were filed with the NRC on Dec. 12, 2003. The Atomic Energy Act has very specific requirements for safety and environmental protection that must be satisfactorily addressed. The NEF application consists of approximately 3,000 pages in 11 volumes, an investment of more than 104,000 man-hours of preparation work. Besides that, the NRC requires hearings on environmental and public health issues that bring out anti-nuclear activists and groups trying to stop the project. In addition, there were negotiations with the state of New Mexico on various issues related to the facility. Needless to say, LES has invested significantly to bring this project to the construction stage.

The enriched uranium will supply producers of the ultimate fuel rods that power commercial nuclear power plants throughout America. The National Enrichment Facility will operate utilizing the most advanced, cost-effective and energy-efficient technology known for uranium enrichment. While this technology has existed and been utilized for over 30 years, the NEF will be the only such facility in North America and just the fourth in the world employing this technology.

Louisiana Energy Services LP was formed specifically for the purpose of providing domestic commercial nuclear power plants with enriched uranium. Partnering with LES is Urenco Ltd., a consortium of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., two German nuclear utilities and the Dutch government. Westinghouse Electric Co. was a 24.5-percent partner in Urenco until March 2006. Urenco, established in 1971, provides 19 percent of the worldwide market for enriched uranium from its three enrichment facilities in England, the Netherlands and Germany. A wholly owned subsidiary of Urenco, Enrichment Technology Co., owns the technology as well as the manufacturing and installation rights for the centrifuge components used in these plants.

Part of the justification for the plant is to improve the security of the supply of enriched uranium for American nuclear power plants. This has become a national issue in light of increased terrorist activities around the world. Currently, America's nuclear power plants are using a lower grade fuel called "low enriched uranium." As of 2005, only 9 percent of the enriched uranium used in American nuclear power plants is produced in the United States, with Russia supplying 44 percent, France 21 percent, Urenco 25 percent, and other foreign sources supplying 1 percent of the U.S. demand. LES currently has contracts committed for NEF production exceeding $3 billion.

The Process

The process is to concentrate the U235 by separating it from the U238 isotopes of natural uranium. The concentration process increases the U235 from 0.7 percent to between 3 percent and 5 percent. This U235 — the only fissionable uranium isotope — will become the core material used to fuel a nuclear power plant. When the fission process occurs, heat is generated in the nuclear power plant. The heat produces steam, which drives turbine generators.

The NEF will operate thousands of gas centrifuges developed by Urenco and proven to be the most energy-efficient and cost-effective way to enrich uranium. The centrifuges will receive uranium hexafluoride gas and spin at high speeds to separate the U235 from the heavier U238 isotopes. The centrifuge method is time-proven to separate relatively heavier and lighter materials. The historic method used in enrichment has been diffusion, similar to filtration, to separate larger from smaller particles. The enrichment process is the second stage in the production of the fuel for power plants.

Environmental Protection

Protecting the environment is a major concern to most Americans. Nuclear power has been a special area of concern for decades, due in part to fears created by fiction such as the movie "The China Syndrome." Opponents have been quite creative in nurturing this fear. In reality, nuclear energy has been extremely safe in all applications. The U.S. Navy has scores of nuclear-powered ships and submarines that have operated for decades without any injury incidents or loss of life related to their nuclear propulsion. There are no statistics indicating long-term health problems for those involved in commercial or military use of nuclear energy. Due to the fears and natural concerns, however, the health of these people has been closely monitored.

In addition to the regulations and oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB), setting the highest standards in the world, there are other state and federal agencies that are involved. Virtually all industrial plant construction is required to file an environmental impact statement. This New Mexico facility is not just subject to the NRC but must comply with requirements of all agencies involved. A special agreement was reached with the state of New Mexico involving Gov. Bill Richardson, Attorney General Patricia Madrid and Secretary Ron Curry of the New Mexico Environment Department addressing all concerns brought to their attention. This written agreement is part of the LES license for the facility.

A major concern in the agreement is the storage of uranium byproduct cylinders (UBCs) that hold and contain the essentially depleted uranium left after the enrichment process. The agreement, approved by the NRC ASLB in August 2005, limits the quantity as well as the duration of UBC storage, based upon date of generation of the waste. The New Mexico Environment Department is given unrestricted inspection access equal to the NRC.

Part of the concern with UBCs and with the enrichment plant is radiation exposure to employees and the environment. Since this is not the first plant to utilize the Urenco process, there are extensive compiled data as well as the ability to observe existing plants in operation. It is documented that employees working within these facilities are exposed to less than 25 millirems of radiation per year. The Urenco facilities in Europe show a history of 20 millirems per year exposure to be typical. A millirem is a one-thousandth of a rem, the unit of measuring absorbed dosages of radiation. NRC regulations limit U.S. nuclear facility worker exposure to 5,000 millirems per year. Statistics show that the average American is exposed to 360 millirems per year from all sources. This facility will be extremely safe from radiation exposure.

One serious concern government and citizens face with any industry starting operations, particularly in the Southwest, is the consumption of a treasured resource — water. The National Enrichment Facility will use approximately 71 acre-feet of water per year, most of which will supply cooling units and have no contact with uranium. To put this into a frame of reference for most people, this is the approximate annual water consumption of an 18-hole golf course or a neighborhood of 200 homes. The Intel computer chip plant in Rio Rancho, N.M., uses 4,000 acre-feet per year. According to the New Mexico State Engineer, evaporation from Elephant Butte Reservoir is approximately 292 acre-feet per year.

Only a small portion of the water will contact any uranium. That small quantity will be collected, monitored and treated in compliance with NRC and NMED requirements. The water will not be allowed to contaminate the environment in any way.

Construction Team

Construction manager for the NEF project is WGI, with Rust Constructors as the general contractor. Onyx Contractors of Carlsbad, N.M., handled the site preparation, while Constructors Inc. of Carlsbad has the contract for excavation and backfill as well as highway lane modifications for site access. Gardner Zemke of Albuquerque is subcontractor for the electrical substation at the site. Underground electrical is under contract with Trico Consortium, a group of contractors from various locations working together for this project. Hy Tech Joint Venture of Albuquerque is the underground mechanical subcontractor.

Wallach Concrete of Hobbs is the concrete supplier, delivering to the site. Red Staff of Eunice is providing general labor support. AMEC of Albuquerque is providing materials testing services.

Construction at this point consists of five major buildings, the most significant of which is the "Modulabs" Building that will house the centrifuges. This structure is to be completely constructed of reinforced concrete with 60-foot-high ceilings and is specially designed to withstand seismic activity significantly greater than any ever recorded in the area. Two of the buildings are designed with concrete walls extending 8 feet above the floor slab. Above that level, the structure is of pre-engineered steel building construction. The last two buildings planned are pre-engineered steel buildings on concrete slabs and foundations. They will be used to assemble the centrifuges that will ultimately be placed in the Modulabs Building. Major quantities involved include 3,889 cubic yards of concrete and 2,000 tons of steel.

This construction is for the basic infrastructure of the site; however, with completion of that work, much work will remain to be accomplished in the assembly of the centrifuges and other process equipment.

During the course of construction, expected to be completed in 2013, the work force will average approximately 1,000 employees. Due to the immediate impact on local demographics this construction and eventual operation will have, LES has aggressively addressed the need for housing in the area by offering contracts to property owners in the Eunice and Hobbs areas. The area has generally strong and stable employment due to oilfield work in the area, but there will be strong growth and demand for employees and all related services.

New Mexico was chosen for this facility due to the presence of Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, both playing significant roles in nuclear research and development, plus the proximity of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project between the site and Carlsbad, as well as the support received from the local area leaders and business people.

The facility being built near Eunice is designed to have a 30-year operational life. When operational, it will employ over 200 full-time and contract workers.