Friday, 15 June 2007

Feasibility of Enrichment (in Queensland??)

The World Nuclear Association is reporting a planed Uranium Enrichment feasibility study about to be launched by Nuclear Fuel Australia Limited.

Plans by the new company, Nuclear Fuel Australia Limited, which is headed by Clarence Hardy, envisage a 3 million separative work unit (SWU) per year plant using Urenco 6th-generation centrifuge technology. Hardy told World Nuclear News that Urenco's National Enrichment Facility (NEF) under construction in New Mexico, USA, made a "very good reference model" for the potential future plant.

Valued at around A$2.5 billion ($2.1 billion), the project could see a A$2.0 billion enrichment plant and a A$500 million conversion plant, which would transform uranium oxide into the uranium hexafluoride (UF6) feed required for gas centrifuge enrichment. Construction is envisaged in the report as starting in 2010 with full capacity being reached in 2015.

Hardy emphasized that NFAL as a company was solely concerned with the feasibility study, and had made no agreements with Urenco or any domestic uranium producer. He said the NFAL preliminary study does not discuss potential sites for the plants.
This work picks up where a previous effort in the early 1980's left off. Some media outlets are reporting that work as some sort of clandestine activity [I wasn't in Australia at the time, so I can't comment]. But I doubt that was the case. If you read the entire WNA article linked above you will see that the 1980's work had government support. Also, let's not forget SILEX [domestic Australian technology recently licensed to GE/America]. So enrichment technology is nothing new to Australia.

Considering the size and scope of the facility being considered... I'd say this is but another example of high end employment opportunities involved within the nuclear fuel cycle.

As one would expect. Kevin Rudd is denigrating this announcement and those behind it. At his side, I am not surprised to see Queensland Premier Peter Beattie. Between the two of them - you will hear the same tired anti-nuclear political rhetoric as I've already posted way too many times in this blog. Digging up the waste discussions while Australia's numerous coal plants continue to indiscriminately spew toxic, climate killing wastes into the air we all fill our lungs with - on average - 13 times a minute.

But the article linked just above also gives some airtime to Dr. Bruce Flegg, Member for Moggill. Dr. Felgg is accusing Peter Beattie of generating hysteria for purely political gains.
"I'm not sure Australians are so simple as Mr Beattie and others would like to portray them," Dr Flegg said.

"Why not at least look at whether this could be a future valuable industry for Queensland?"

Dr Flegg accused the premier of "selling short the future of the state". "We want to look at the science of it and make sure that if uranium enrichment were to be contemplated for Queensland that it can be delivered safely."

"Uranium enrichment is not an activity that should be tolerated in any of the residential or urban areas in the state of Queensland," Dr Flegg said.

I'd say Dr. Flegg is right. Especially when Mr. Beattie speaks of 'other options to address climate change' while his fingers quietly stroke the pen that approved new fossil fueled facilities like this one to be located near Braemar, Queensland.

Further information

WNA's Uranium Enrichment information paper

WNN: Australian uranium policy moves on
WNN: "Nuclear power is part of Australia's future"
WNN: Taskforce supports consideration of nuclear


  1. Australian uranium enrichment would be a major contribution to the fight against nuclear weapons proliferation, and don't let anyone say different.

    Uranium enrichment is the quickest and least technologically challenging route to a atom bomb. If Australia enriches uranium and sells nuclear fuel to all comers at say 5% enrichment, there is no reason for other countries with a small nuclear industry to even set up enrichment plants. And 5% enriched is no use for bombs and does not represent the major work of enriching to bomb quality. Good news all round.

  2. Joffan, I'd like to disagree a little bit.

    Firstly, I'm not sure that enrichment is the "quickest and least technologically challenging" route to a bomb. The major advantage of uranium enrichment is that it a) gives you a bomb that's guaranteed to work, without needing to test, and b) the research can be done covertly, without needing to build a large, obvious reactor building to breed plutonium.

    The second point is that there are already commercial enrichment companies out there who will sell nuclear fuel to "all comers" - USEC, Urenco, Areva, and the Russian enrichment company. There doesn't seem to be any compelling argument that an Australian-based company - who would in any case follow the practice of other Western countries in deciding who to sell to or not - would add any great assurance into the market.

    Furthermore, unlike the United States or western Europe, Australia has third-world neighbours who are extremely different culturally and with whom relations have on occasion been very frosty (Indonesia and Australia have had military confrontations on a couple of occasions - see Indonesian Confrontation at Wikipedia). It's possible that Australia acquiring an enrichment plant, purely commercial and safeguarded as it would undoubtedly be, might provoke calls in Indonesia for the acquisition of a similar capability.

    Ed, one technical question: is there any reason why an Australian enrichment plant would have a competitive advantage in the marketplace over Urenco and USEC's plants based on being located in Australia?

  3. Hi Robert,

    Technically speaking, I'm not all that familiar with enrichment.

    I'm also not really current on the related global infrastructure - which enrichment facilities around the world are getting old, etc. [i.e. Is there now a need for the next generation of enrichment facilities?]. Although I did just stumble onto this announcement about USEC – so maybe there is some room for other players.

    My comments were simply based on my observations [Howard visiting some fairly significant nuclear players within the last year or so, being invited to join GNEP, etc.].

    Our interest in enrichment may have something to do with long term security - provided Australia does in fact develop nuclear power generation plants around the country. One item I do have experience with is being dependent on a single fuel supplier [e.g. supplier has a monopoly over the nuclear facility]. Believe me this is not a situation anyone wants to find themselves in.

    This is why I believe other countries are looking forward to enrichment in Australia - to enhance overall competition.

    You never know, we may try to commercially develop the SILEX process and achieve a competitive advantage through superior technology.

    Finally, simply by enriching from 0.7% to 5% one would reduce the amount of material requiring handling and shipment by about 86% of its original mass. Since uranium is quite heavy, I imagine it is usually limited by weight rather than volume when being moved about. So enriching here would allow us to export more on a 'per container' basis. Keeping the enrichment well below 20% would also minimise the required safeguard burden on shipments.

  4. OK I may have overstepped a bit. My comment was to some extent a preaction (!) to the claims I've seen elsewhere that uranium enrichment is nuclear weapons proliferation.

    And it sounds like you agree at least that enrichment can be the least technologically challenging route to a bomb, Robert. Maybe not quickest, depending on the state of the technological infrastructure in the country in question.

    As for Indonesia etc; I'd suggest that Australia closely involves the IAEA at every stage of the program and insist that other countries do likewise.