USEC eyes nuclear plant revival

Bethesda provider of enriched uranium likely to gain customers with approval of additional reactors

Friday, June 16, 2006

If the federal government approves the construction of new nuclear power plants, USEC, a Bethesda provider of enriched uranium fuel for nuclear facilities, is on a short list of companies worldwide that stand to gain more business in the enriched uranium fuel industry.

New nuclear plants are being built in other nations, and utilities that operate in the United States are preparing applications to construct such facilities that they expect to file starting next year, said Elizabeth M. Stuckle, a USEC spokeswoman.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency that oversees nuclear facilities, expects ‘‘several” applications for new nuclear power plants in late 2007 and early 2008, with ‘‘construction activities possible after significant agency review,” officials said in a recent news release.

The NRC conducted a public meeting Thursday in Rockville related to requirements for licensing new reactors. A workshop on the issue is planned Aug. 22-23. The agency plans to soon form an organization in Atlanta to coordinate the inspection of new plants.

USEC’s main competitors in providing uranium fuel for such new plants come down to two: Urenco of Germany and Areva Group of Paris, France, Stuckle said. She said she could not estimate what a contract to provide fuel to a new plant might cost.

USEC saw its revenue from uranium grow by 17 percent to $261 million last year over 2004. Total sales were also up by 10 percent to $1.6 billion. The company saw a net profit of $22 million last year, about the same as in 2004.

‘‘Nuclear power is a critical and growing part of the world’s energy future,” Stuckle said. ‘‘Any additional nuclear power plants built anywhere is good news for all enrichment companies.”

It’s not so good news for the environment, as the possibility of new U.S. nuclear facilities raises questions, such as what to do with the toxic nuclear waste, said Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. The environmental organization is part of the Apollo Alliance, a Washington, D.C., coalition that includes businesses developing alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power.

‘‘We have to make sure that accidents like the one at Three Mile Island do not occur again,” said Schweiger, who spoke on the issue Monday with actor Robert Redford and others at a conference organized by Washington think tank Campaign for America’s Future.

The industry has implemented safeguards since the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and has a long record free of accidents, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington industry group. The NRC recently conducted a hearing on nuclear waste.

Redford, founder of the Sundance Channel and other businesses, added that it’s important for businesses to find ways to reduce dependence on foreign oil. ‘‘We can do that and create new jobs through developing clean technology,” he said.

Besides phasing in more forms of renewable energy, the alliance promotes constructing energy efficient homes and buildings and incentives for hybrid vehicles.

USEC believes in a ‘‘strong energy mix,” Stuckle said. ‘‘Certainly, solar, wind and fuel cells have their place in this energy mix,” she said. ‘‘But they cannot provide large-scale, baseload electricity.”

About 20 percent of electricity in the United States is generated with nuclear power, while more than one-third of the energy in Europe and Japan comes from nuclear, Stuckle said. She called nuclear power an ‘‘emission-free, clean, safe and reliable energy supply.”

But a recent report from the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Takoma Park organization, found that all U.S. radioactive waste policies have failed. The group recommends that an independent commission be formed to come up with new radioactive waste policies.

The government’s present proposals, which include shipping waste through 45 states and the District of Columbia to bury it in a ‘‘leaky volcanic earthquake zone” in the Western U.S., don’t make sense, said Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste specialist with the NIRS.

‘‘What is needed is a complete re-evaluation of our radioactive waste programs, and that needs to be done before construction of anymore nuclear reactors is even considered,” Kamps said.

USEC officials were happy about a recent ruling by the U.S. Department of Commerce that ‘‘unfair dumping” of uranium would likely occur if the U.S. lifted restrictions on the importation of enriched uranium from Russia. USEC believes that ending such restrictions would undermine the company’s commitment to sell enriched uranium under a program that has eliminated Russian weapons-grade material equivalent to more than 10,500 nuclear warheads, Stuckle said.

The U.S. International Trade Commission is expected to issue a ruling on the matter next month.

USEC is at a ‘‘critical juncture” in its advanced centrifuge technology and will soon seek financing for a commercial plant in Ohio, Stuckle said. The technology may be threatened if USEC is unable to secure financing due to the Russian issue, she said.

Public meeting

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will meet from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Tuesday to discuss issues related to new reactor applications. The meeting will be at 11555 Rockville Pike, Rockville.