Navigating southern New Mexico’s uranium plants

Earlier this week, I received notice of an upcoming public meeting about a proposed uranium processing facility. I have to admit that I hadn’t heard about the plant, which is called the “Fluorine Extraction Process and Depleted Uranium Deconversion Plant” and would be located outside Hobbs, NM.

The project has been in the works for a few years: In 2009, International Isotopes submitted an application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Council (NRC), which oversees the nation’s nuclear power plants and other nuclear facilities.

The Idaho-based company plans to take depleted uranium hexafluoride and “deconvert” it into fluorine products for commercial sale.

Looking through the NRC’s documents, I’ve seen two different figures for how much the depleted uranium hexafluoride the facility could process—but it ranges from 7 million to 22 million pounds per year.

Although the NRC has accepted the company’s application and approved its safety report, the company has one more regulatory hurdle to clear. The NRC still needs to approve the study—or Environmental Impact Statement—that guides the plant’s construction and 40-year operating license.

This morning I spoke with Steve Laflin, the president and CEO of International Isotopes, who explained to me how a “Fluorine Extraction Process and Depleted Uranium Deconversion Plant” works.

When natural uranium hexafluoride is prepared for use in a reactor, it leaves behind a lot of waste. Laflin estimates the ratio is about ten to one; if you have ten pounds of uranium hexafluoride, you’ll end up with one pound of enriched material to use as fuel and nine pounds of depleted uranium.

The proposed plant in southern New Mexico would take depleted uranium hexafluoride —coming from URENCO USA’s new enrichment facility in nearby Eunice—and extract the fluoride.

So, what uses are there for fluoride?

Thousands, says Laflin. It’s most often used in pharmaceuticals and in manufacturing processes involving silicon, including photovoltaic solar panels. He describes the company as ecologically friendly.

“We really brag about this project in terms of its green nature,” he says. “We’re recycling material, and preventing it from becoming a large waste stockpile and a liability to anyone elsewhere.”

As for the waste product—the depleted uranium—Laflin says it is “Class A” radioactive waste, which is the lowest class.

“There are several licensed disposal facilities in the US—one is operated by the (U.S. Department of Energy) in Nevada, and there’s a commercial facility in Utah,” he says. “Then there’s the waste control specialist site soon to open in West Texas.”

Don Hancock, with Southwest Research and Information Center says it is important for people to pay attention to what is happening in southern New Mexico.

The deconversion plant would be new to New Mexico, but it’s also unique worldwide. According to Hancock, there are only two other deconversion plants in the world—one in Paducah, KY and the other in Portsmouth, OH. They have required hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, he adds, and have only recently gotten up and running.

“International Isotope’s would be the third facility in the world—and nobody, including International Isotopes, really has a track record in operating these unique facilities,” Hancock says. “And the reason this unique facility is being built is because of the other unique facility, the URENCO USA enrichment facility. The reason International Isotopes is here is because URENCO is here.”

In other words, explains Hancock, it’s wise to pay attention to what is currently being proposed—because it may lead to something else down the road.

According to the New Mexico Environment Department, the public is invited to join the NRC’s June 28, 2012 meeting, which is scheduled for 10 a.m. EDT:

Those from the public interested in participating in the meeting should contact, Cynthia Taylor, NRC, Region II, at (404) 997-4480 or at Cynthia.Taylor@nrc.gov.  Please contact Cynthia Taylor in advance of the meeting, indicating your intent to attend and to obtain teleconferencing information.  Public attendees will have an opportunity to ask questions of the NRC staff at the conclusion of the public management meeting, but before the meeting adjourns.

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