By Pat Marida and Beatrice Brailsford

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is considering giving a $2 billion loan guarantee to United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC) to build a uranium enrichment facility in Ohio. Many in the state are hailing this project for bringing in much-needed jobs, but financially, the project is on shaky ground and is unlikely to bring anything but debt and dashed hopes to Ohio’s residents.

U.S. taxpayers are already on the hook for $2 billion in guarantees that DOE offered to the French government-owned company Areva to build a similar uranium enrichment facility in Idaho. Once that $3.3 billion facility gets a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and begins operating in four years or so, it is supposed to supply fuel to about 50 nuclear reactors, but not exclusively to plants in the U.S.

All this taxpayer money is being waved around in the name of moving the U.S. toward a clean energy policy. But what are American taxpayers being asked to invest in? Let’s take a closer look at the bets Washington is making with our tax dollars.

In Ohio, USEC's effort to build the American Centrifuge Plant has been riddled with ever-escalating costs and delays. The original estimated cost of $1.7 billion has soared to $4.6 billion in three short years. DOE actually rejected USEC’s initial loan guarantee application in July 2009, because of financial and technology problems.

USEC no longer has an estimated completion date, but the timing of the project is critical. Half of USEC’s business goes away in 2013 with the expiration of the U.S.-Russian agreement to use Russian down-blended uranium from dismantled nuclear weapons as fuel in U.S. reactors.

USEC has invested $1.8 billion in the project and obtained commitments of $100 million each from Toshiba and Babcock & Wilcox. These two companies won’t invest unless the $2 billion loan guarantee comes through, and the deal guarantees them huge profits off the top. Still, USEC will have at least a $600 million cost gap plus enormous financing costs.

In Idaho, Areva is planning to build the Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility on the upstream end of the Snake River Aquifer, the sole source of drinking water for about a quarter of the people who live in the state. Decommissioning will cost an additional $3.5 billion, for which Areva has offered something akin to a wink and a promise to pay. The facility will be situated a few miles east of the Idaho National Laboratory, which has left a sad legacy of nuclear waste that has already cost taxpayers billions to clean up.

Enrichment is a messy business, with a long history of contamination. Producing one ton of enriched uranium for use as nuclear fuel creates, on average, seven tons of depleted uranium hexafluoride waste – a highly toxic material that reacts violently with water and corrodes most metals. DOE is currently storing nearly three quarters of a million metric tons of uranium hexafluoride from decades of past enrichment activities.

The hexafluoride has to be removed before the depleted uranium can be disposed. Once it is removed, the remaining depleted uranium becomes increasingly radioactive over the course of a million years. At present, there is simply no place to put the stuff.

The USEC facility will generate another 265,300 metric tons of uranium hexafluoride; the Areva facility 320,000. This waste will be stored on-site until its turn comes for treatment, which will take at least 25 years because of the current backlog.

But is the investment of taxpayer dollars necessary to produce the fuel to keep U.S. reactors humming? Apparently not. On June 2, Urenco, another international company, cut the ribbon on a new uranium enrichment facility in New Mexico. The $2 billion facility will also serve a global market, but was built solely with private funds.

With three new enrichment facilities up and running and the ongoing delays and cancellations of new reactor projects, we will go from having too little reactor fuel to having too much. That means taxpayers will be asked to guarantee billions of dollars in a market that may soon be glutted.
Marida is the nuclear issues chair of the Ohio Sierra Club. Brailsford is the program director of the Snake River Alliance in Idaho.
Copyright (C) 2010 by Ohio Forum. 11/10