Less than a fortnight after construction began at Usec's American Centrifuge plant, a centrifuge demonstration at the Piketon, Ohio, site could be only weeks away.
No firm date is set for the demonstration, according to reports citing Usec's Elizabeth Stuckle, but the company is still trying to attract investors for the $2.3 billion plant. A demonstration could help: in Stuckle's words, "Investors are always more comfortable when they can kick the tyres."
The issue of attracting investors is a crucial one. Cost estimates for the new plant have already increased from an initial $1.7 billion to $2.3 billion. Much of the enrichment that Usec currently sells is under the terms of the 'Megatons to Megawatts' program, under which ex-military enriched uranium from Russia is diluted to reactor grade and used by US nuclear utilities. However, with the agreement due to end in 2013, and the possible relaxation of current stringent limits on imports of Russian-enriched uranium into the USA, USEC could find itself facing increased competition from overseas. It has already liquidated some of its own uranium assets.
The USA has stuck with gaseous diffusion technology to enrich uranium in fissile U-235 since the very earliest days of nuclear programm in the 1940s. Usec operates the country's only existing enrichment plant. But gaseous diffusion is a highly energy intensive - and therefore expensive - process. Centrifuge technology is about 50 times more energy efficient and currently accounts for 65% of world uranium enrichment. Usec will be using centrifuge technology that was initially developed in US Department of Energy programmes from the 1960s to 1980s and resurrected in 1999 after Usec abandoned its quest to perfect laser-based enrichment technology.
WNA's Uranium Enrichment information paper
WNA's US Nuclear Power Industry information paper
WNN: American Centrifuge construction begins
WNN: USEC revises costs, capacity and schedule for enrichment plant