Springfields Hex plant to stay open

17 March 2005

Just two weeks before ownership of the Springfields site in the UK is due to transfer from BNFL to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), BNFL has signed a ten-year toll-conversion agreement with Cameco for uranium conversion services from the site’s Line 4 Hex plant. Under the agreement, BNFL will annually convert a base quantity of 5 million kg of uranium (kgU) as UO3 to UF6 for Cameco.

In 2001, BNFL announced that the Springfields facility would close in 2006. This new agreement will keep the plant operating for the duration of the agreement. According to NDA spokesman Richard Flynn, since the NDA only becomes fully operational on 1 April 2005 – on which date it will assume ownership of Springfields – approval of this contract was still a matter for the UK government’s Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). A spokesperson for the DTI confirmed that her department had approved the contract, adding that the DTI is “satisfied this contract is entirely consistent with the NDA’s remit.” Noting it was government policy that the NDA should maximise funding available for clean-up activities, she told NEI: “The income will offset the costs of the eventual decommissioning of the Hex plant itself, and potentially in respect of other facilities.”

Cameco currently refines uranium concentrates to UO3 at the Blind River refinery and ships this material to the Port Hope conversion facility. Both facilities are located in Ontario. Under the agreement with BNFL, Cameco will also ship UO3 from its Blind River refinery to the Hex plant for conversion.

Cameco will invest about C$6 million ($5.0 million) to expand production and drum-filling facilities at its Blind River refinery and C$4 million ($3.3 million) to construct drum tipping and washing facilities at the Springfields plant. UO3 shipments from Blind River are expected to begin later this year with UF6 conversion shipments from BNFL starting in mid-2006.

“This agreement allows us to effectively achieve a significant increase in UF6 production capacity, sales and market share by investing a small amount of capital,” said Jerry Grandey, Cameco’s president and CEO. “At the same time, it preserves Springfields’ production capacity at a critical time in the industry and enables us to lower our unit costs by utilising Blind River’s unused capacity.”

Historically, the Blind River refinery has not operated anywhere near full capacity since it has been limited by the capacity of Cameco’s conversion facility at Port Hope, which receives essentially all of Blind River’s UO3 production. Cameco currently has more than a quarter of the West’s UF6 conversion capacity from its Port Hope plant.



Arak and Esfahan

As well as the main, essentially political, discussion, parallel sessions were held on
scientific and technical matters. These included presentations on Iran’s new heavy water research reactor and heavy water production plant. The AEOI’s Seyyed Hossein Hosseini explained that Iran needed a new reactor to replace the ageing 37-year old Tehran Research Reactor as a tool for isotope production, training and basic research. The decision to design and build the heavy water moderated IR-40 was taken after purchasing a reactor from the usual suppliers had proved impossible due to sanctions. R&D on the reactor had begun in the 1980s along with laboratory scale experiments to produce heavy water and decision to construct a heavy water reactor had been taken in the mid-1990s. To meet isotope production requirements, the reactor would need a neutron flux of 1013 to 1014n/cm2 which would require power of 30-40MW using natural uranium oxide (UO2) fuel. The fuel will be produced at the Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) and the Zirconium Production Plant (ZPP). The basic design phase is now completed and the foundations of the reactor are being laid at Arak. Hosseini said the design experience had been valuable in paving the way for future indigenous designs for power reactors. The reactor should be completed by 2009 and will require an initial load of 80-90t of heavy water.

Manouchehr Madadi described the heavy water production plant at Arak, the first stage of which is now operating. In addition to its use as a reactor moderator and coolant, he said heavy water has wide applications in Iran including in the pharmaceutical, biotechnological, and biological fields as well as in cancer diagnosis and control and domestic production dispenses with the need for imports. The Arak Heavy Water Complex, which uses girdler sulfide (GS) technology and distillation, has 12 different units, including three main and nine side units. The main units are number 2 (which has been operational for some time and where H2S is stored in liquid form); 3 (the GS unit which came on stream recently); and 4 (which is the final distillation phase). The complex’s capacity will rise to 16t from 8t per day once unit 4 goes into operation. Madadi said no foreign experts had been involved in the designing and construction process of the project had been implemented solely by Iranian technicians and experts.
After the conference foreign delegates were flown to Esfahan for a six-hour tour of the Esfahan Nuclear Technology Centre including the Research Centre, the UCF, and the ZPP – the first ever such visit by international experts, apart from IAEA inspections teams. After a briefing by Mansoori, the director of the Nuclear Technology Centre, the delegates toured the UCF and the ZPP.

Work at the UCF, which converts uranium yellowcake to UF6 and which is under IAEA safeguards, is currently suspended with 1000 workers laid off. Building work
at the facility, which is over 70% complete, has also stopped. Before the suspension, 21 out of the 24 workshops were operational. The plant is designed to produce four kinds of fuel including natural UO2 powder (11.3t per year), up to 5% enriched UO2 powder (34t/y) as well as 280 tpy of UF6 as an intermediary. The main process lines include Production of UF6 from yellowcake (U3O8), production of fluorine (F2) from hydrogen fluoride (HF), and production of UO2 from natural U3O8 and enriched UF6.

• Ammonium uranium carbonate (AUC) is produced from U3O8 (300t of U3O8 is converted to 480t AUC each year), which is used to produce uranium tetrafluoride (UF4). The AUC will be converted to UO2 and then, with HF gas, will be converted to UF4 (282t/y). About 95% of the UF4 (265t/y) will be used to produce UF6 and 5% to produce U-ingot.
• Another process produces depleted UF4 from depleted UF6 to solidify and maintain depleted UF6. Some 250t of UF6 will be converted to 223t/y depleted UF4, which has no special application to simplify waste management.
• F2 is produced by electrolysing HF and potassium hydrogen fluoride (KHF2).
• UO2 powder is produced in two natural enriched forms for use in research and power reactors.

The ZPP occupies approximately 54 acres including industrial areas, warehouses, administration and engineering supportive buildings, landscape and extension area. It will produce 50t of zirconium sponge a year, 10t of tube and 2t of strip and bar from zirconium alloys, as well as 100t of magnesium and 5t of hafnium. The plant can also produce 99.99% pure magnesium (by electrolysis and vacuum distillation), zirconium alloys , titanium and its alloys, and can undertake ferrous and non-ferrous metal casting. The primary raw material is zircon concentrate with purity of 63%.

The health and safety conditions at both facilities were impressive.





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