Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations require the agency to thoroughly reassess Areva’s uranium enrichment plans because of “changed circumstances bearing on environmental concerns and bearing on the proposed action or its impacts.” Click here to send a message to the NRC.
The panel of NRC judges (the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board) that will decide whether or not to give Areva a license to build a uranium enrichment factory in Bonneville County came to Idaho last week. They wanted to hear about the “impact of the Fukushima Daiichi accident on the need for enrichment services.” The need for Areva’s plant has always been questionable, and expert analysts warned that uranium enrichment capacity was set to outstrip requirements even before the Japanese nuclear disaster, which has since created uncertainty and decline in uranium markets worldwide as well as the nuclear industry as a whole.
Almost immediately after the disaster, Idaho Representative Mike Simpson, co-chair of the Nuclear Issues Working Group, said, “Politically, this will slow down nuclear. It might make it harder for new nuclear facilities to get loan guarantees. It might slow down the effort to push more nuclear power out the door. That’s just being realistic.”
The first evening of the NRC panel’s visit, the judges did hear some voices of reality. People had a chance to tell the panel about the significant effects the tragedy in Japan has already had on the nuclear industry. For instance, Germany, the world’s fourth largest economy, will shut down all its reactors in a decade. Switzerland, too, has voted for a phase-out. Only 19 of Japan’s 54 reactors are currently operating, and it’s not at all clear that the shutdown reactors will ever come back on line. Areva itself has decided to slow its investment in mine developments based in Niger and Namibia.
In the US, there are already fewer new reactors in the queue. Entergy pulled the plug on two of the most likely new reactors at its South Texas complex. Southern Company is facing budget and schedule problems before it even has a license for its new reactors in Georgia. Unistar won’t be building another reactor in Maryland. In addition, Areva has postponed indefinitely further construction of a reactor component factory in Newport News, Virginia, “until market conditions become more favorable.”
All of these facts led industry consultant UxC to estimate global reactor requirements for uranium will now be, comparing pre-Fukushima to post-Fukushima estimates, 3.5% lower in 2015, 9.7% lower by 2020 and 14% lower by 2030.
But the following morning, Areva monopolized the microphone for the entire session. Areva warned that an agreement with Russia to provide reactor grade uranium from downblending its stockpile of bomb grade uranium runs out in 2013. Reality check: Nothing says that Russia will not continue to supply enriched uranium to the global market even after the agreement expires. And absolutely nothing says the United States shouldn’t be downblending our own weapons uranium, too. Areva tried a little xenophobia and raised the specter of a uranium market controlled by non-US forces. Reality check: The uranium market has always been global. Areva, owned by the French government, is a major player in that global market. Areva speculated that the Japanese tragedy will have no effect on the current US reactor fleet. Reality check: The current US reactor fleet is already fully supplied…without Areva. Areva pointed to the planned closure of antiquated enrichment facilities in the US. Reality check: Enrichment capacity worldwide is growing. Areva’s own facility in France is expanding, and a brand new facility in New Mexico has been enriching uranium for more than a year. That factory’s owners plan to expand it over the years to provide half the enriched uranium needed in this country.
The most disappointing part of the NRC’s visit is that its staff remained essentially silent. Only when pressed by the chief judge did they say anything at all. They backed Areva’s contention that signed contracts for some of its output prove the factory is needed. But there’s a reality check there, too: Areva signed contracts before the US government has granted it a license or given it a loan guarantee it claims it will not proceed without. It is essentially trying to force the US government’s hand.
Tell the NRC it must reject Areva’s license application for now because three worldwide trends throw into question the need for its uranium enrichment factory: a significant depression in the uranium market following the nuclear crisis in Japan, greatly increased cost estimates for new reactors, and a markedly reduced pace of new nuclear project construction. We need a thorough reassessment of plans costs and benefits.