Monday, April 16, 2007

Bethesda company wins key license for nuclear fuel plant

USEC expects to start operations at Ohio facility by late 2009

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USEC, a Bethesda provider of enriched uranium fuel for nuclear facilities, has received a construction and 30-year operating license for its uranium enrichment plant in Piketon, Ohio, from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The license approval on Friday culminates a process that lasted two-and-a-half years and included environmental and safety reviews, said Elizabeth Stuckle, a USEC spokeswoman. Construction on the $2.3 billion American Centrifuge Plant is expected to begin ‘‘immediately,” with the plant operational by late 2009, Stuckle said.

About 400 people will work at the facility, and other manufacturing jobs will be created in other areas to support the work.

The USEC facility is the second uranium enrichment plant approved by the NRC in the last three decades, Stuckle said. A license for Louisiana Energy Services to build an enrichment facility in New Mexico was approved last year.

The new plant is expected to replace an older uranium enrichment facility that USEC operates in Kentucky, Stuckle said.

‘‘The new plant will use about 95 percent less electricity than the old one,” she said.

The gas centrifuge technology in Piketon is much more efficient than the gas diffusion enrichment technology used at USEC’s Kentucky facility, Stuckle said.

Plans are under way for more than 30 new commercial nuclear reactors in the United States, John K. Welch, USEC president and CEO, said in a statement. ‘‘A stable, domestic source of enriched uranium is vital” for the development of the facilities, he said.

No commercial reactor has been built in the United States in three decades, though the Bush administration is trying to revive the industry. About 20 percent of the nation’s electricity is generated by nuclear plants.

The New Mexico enrichment plant is being challenged in court by watchdog groups Nuclear Information and Resource Service of Takoma Park and Public Citizen of Washington, D.C. Officials with those groups said in a news release that the plant did not have proper disposal capacity for depleted uranium waste that would be produced and cited other issues. A challenge was filed in early April in a District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Michele Boyd, legislative director of Public Citizen’s energy program, said Monday that the group was focusing on the New Mexico case and did not plan to legally challenge the USEC plant. An official from Nuclear Information and Resource Service could not be reached for comment Monday.

Geoffrey Sea, a resident of Sargents, Ohio, and co-founder of a local neighborhood group there, said the USEC license will be challenged. He questioned whether USEC had the financing or the technology to actually build the plant.

Shares of USEC on the New York Stock Exchange increased 66 cents to $19.76 on Friday. On Monday, the stock price continued to rise to $20.30, its highest point in the past year.

USEC reported that net income last year more than quadrupled over 2005 to $106.2 million. Revenues rose by almost 19 percent to $1.85 billion.