Waste commitment needed

-A A +A

Uranium conference boosts reactors, more disposal

About five years ago, I was introduced to the concept of an “energy corridor,” more of an “energy circle” in truth, centering on Hobbs and including Eddy County and Texas communities such as Andrews and Midland.
Much has happened since. An example is the bold, three-dimensional signs at the Hobbs city limits. Corporate lodging has appeared. North of the Marriott Fairfield is a large apartment development, addressing the desperate housing shortage of 2006.
“EnergyPlex” has become a Lea County trademark.
During April’s final week, the Economic Development Corporation of Lea County, and New Mexico Junior College offered a conference, “Uranium Fuel Cycle 2011,” both an update and a sales pitch. A few highlights follow.
The fuel cycle starts with mining, explained Gregory O.D. Smith, CEO of Orenco USA. The remaining steps are conversion, enrichment, fuel fabrication, electricity production at the nuclear power plant, distribution and use.
Mining also has its cycle, said Virginia McClemore of New Mexico Tech.
“Today we’re looking at a mine as a life,” she said. “It’s no longer explore, mine and walk away. Mine closure and post-closure are actively part of the equation.”
Smith knows enrichment. For four years Urenco’s plant near Eunice has been the nation’s largest construction project, a title Smith expects the project to wear for several more years.
Enrichment concentrates uranium hexafluoride so it can sustain a reaction in a power plant. Some is left over, which brings up the nuclear cluster facilities attracted by Urenco.
International Isotopes Inc., of Idaho Falls, a nuclear medicine firm is developing a $125 million plant to remove (i.e., deconvert) the fluoride and make industrial fluoride products.
One effect of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan was evaporation of the favorable investment conditions motivating a planned stock offering, CEO Steve Laflin told the conference.
A new Eunice-based Urenco subsidiary, a consulting firm, is using Urenco’s construction expertise in support of the International Isotopes plant.
Another member of the nuclear cluster is Waste Control Specialists, of Dallas, which is building a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility east of Eunice near Andrews, Texas.
The sales pitches were two — for more nuclear waste disposal in the area salt beds and for a small modular nuclear power plant.
Politics aside, the logic of both is straightforward.
Former Sen. Pete Domenici said, “A commitment must be made by the United States to dispose of the waste.” WIPP, near Carlsbad, has proven a very good idea.
Recently Domenici got eight fellow members of the federal Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to visit WIPP and see the salt beds for the first time. All were hugely impressed. “The science has proved that this salt has not moved for 300 million years,” he said.
More research is needed to determine the requirements for disposing of higher level waste. The case for small modular reactors came from John Kelly, of the Department of Energy.
SMRs cost much less than large units and will be very safe and secure, he said. They will be made in the controlled environment of a factory, enabling production efficiency.
They could be located underground. They’re air cooled instead of water cooled, an advantage in the dry West. And new units can be added incrementally as demand grows.
Speakers, including Daniel Fine of New Mexico Tech, like the idea of having an SMR in southeast New Mexico, if only to add the final step of power generation to the cycle.
The EnergyPlex has many more elements, including solar and wind in addition to the existing oil and gas.
Much more development is on the horizon.
More conference notes will be posted at www.capitolreportnm.com.

Harold Morgan
© New Mexico News Services 2011