Commercial enrichment study for Australian government

14 June 2007

An Australian company will submit a preliminary feasibility study on building a facility to enrich domestically-sourced uranium. An advance breifing has already been submitted to prime minister John Howard's government.

The move comes shortly after the Australian Labor Party (ALP) voted to end its restrictive uranium mining policy and allow individual states to decide on new mines, and the
comprehensive Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review commissioned by the government last year. This said that nuclear power was prospective for Australia if significant costs were put on carbon emissions, but was sceptical of value-adding conversion and enrichment developments for Australia's exported uranium - about 20% of world supply.

Plans by the new company, Nuclear Fuel Australia Limited, which is headed by Clarence Hardy, envisage a 3 million separative work unit (SWU) per year plant using Urenco 6th-generation centrifuge technology. Hardy told World Nuclear News that Urenco's National Enrichment Facility (NEF) under construction in New Mexico, USA, made a "very good reference model" for the potential future plant.

He said Urenco was positive towards NFAL using all publically available information on the NEF, which includes technology reports, financial reports, an environmental impact assessment and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's own environmental report.

Valued at around A$2.5 billion ($2.1 billion), the project could see a A$2.0 billion enrichment plant and a A$500 million conversion plant, which would transform uranium oxide into the uranium hexafluoride (UF6) feed required for gas centrifuge enrichment. Construction is envisaged in the report as starting in 2010 with full capacity being reached in 2015.

Hardy emphasized that NFAL as a company was solely concerned with the feasibility study, and had made no agreements with Urenco or any domestic uranium producer. He said the NFAL preliminary study does not discuss potential sites for the plants.

NFAL is essentially repeating an exercise undertaken in 1982 by the Uranium Enrichment Group of Australia (UEGA) consortium, which Hardy was also involved in. UEGA also submitted a plan to government concerning an enrichment plant, but a change of government the next year meant an end to the project.

Hardy told WNN he had spent 20 years "waiting for a new opportunity to open the study again," but that there were again considerable hurdles in terms of government and legislation. A federal law must be changed to allow fuel cycle facilities on Australian soil, and there is currently no regulatory body to oversee the safety of a uranium enrichment plant.

A briefing document entitled The Case For Uranium Enrichment in Australia has already been submitted to government. The preliminary feasibility study would foolow in around nine months, according to Hardy.

The ruling Liberal government has said it is unhappy with the laws and is taking steps towards amending them. However, a federal election is set for October. Despite its moves on uranium mining, the opposition ALP remains essentially anti-nuclear, so this and other initiatives could flounder with a change of government.

Further information

WNA's Uranium Enrichment information paper

WNN: Australian uranium policy moves on
WNN: "Nuclear power is part of Australia's future"
WNN: Taskforce supports consideration of nuclear

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