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Company Struggles to Keep U.S. in the Uranium Enrichment Game via The New York Times

EUNICE, N.M. — While the only American-owned company that enriches uranium prepares for bankruptcy, its competitor is zooming ahead with construction of what it describes as a cluster of far more economical and efficient new centrifuges.

Urenco, a German-Dutch-British consortium that began producing here in 2010, is on its way to doubling its size, and is apparently competing successfully even as the market for its product shrinks because of reactor shutdowns in Japan and elsewhere after the Fukushima Daiichi accident three years ago. At the same time, the American company, USEC, continues to ask for a $2 billion loan guarantee from Washington as it tries to prove, despite the impending bankruptcy, that its American Centrifuge project is close to commercial operation.

The end result may be that uranium enrichment, which was pioneered by the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to develop the atomic bomb, may become primarily a European and Russian technology.

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Enrichment plants sort two types of uranium that occur in nature: uranium 235, which splits easily in reactors and bombs, and uranium 238, which does not. In nature, one uranium atom in 140 is uranium 235, but most reactors require a level of one in 33 to one in 20. Iran has used centrifuges to enrich uranium to one part in 20. At a little more than 9 uranium 235 parts in 10, the uranium is bomb fuel.

The Manhattan Project, and later the Atomic Energy Commission, mixed the uranium with fluorine to create a gas. The gas, uranium hexafluoride, was forced through a barrier that allowed one form to pass more easily than the other, a process called gaseous diffusion. Government-owned gaseous diffusion plants — eventually inherited by USEC — began by making weapons but later provided enrichment services for uranium owned by electric utilities with power plants. The last of those enrichment plants shut last year.

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So far, the department has repeatedly turned down USEC’s loan guarantee applications and told USEC to come back when the work was further along.

The budget deal in Congress earlier this month, however, provided $62 million from the nuclear weapons budget for work on USEC’s American Centrifuge project because the centrifuges could make fuel for a reactor that would produce a weapons material, tritium. Congress also provided another $56 million to the Energy Department that could be transferred to USEC later. USEC’s centrifuge would be substantially more productive than Urenco’s latest model, said a USEC spokesman, Paul E. Jacobson.

Read more at Company Struggles to Keep U.S. in the Uranium Enrichment Game

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