Uranium enrichment company Urenco has taken the next step in its plan to increase production capacity with a contract for its Tails Management Facility (TMF) expansion in the UK. Comprising of a number of associated storage, maintenance and residue processing facilities, the Tails Management Facility (TMF) is used to convert depleted uranium hexafluoride (UF6), known as tails, into stable uranium oxide (U308).

Richard Stephens, who is leading the overarching Capex programme that includes the TMF expansion, explains: “In the new form it meets standards for things like non- proliferation and reducing dust. It’s about responsible nuclear stewardship and being able to store it in the correct form and for possible reuse at a later date.”

Urenco has awarded a contract to engineering firm Bechtel for the Front End Engineering Design (FEED) to expand the TMF so it is capable of processing greater volumes in response to anticipated growth in demand and, in turn, greater need for processing of tails.

Driving capacity expansion

Behind the decision to expand the TMF are several growth drivers that are reaching across the nuclear fuel supply value chain. They include the climate crisis and energy security concerns in light of the conflict in Ukraine.

Although there is no shortage of enriched fuel in the industry currently, these factors have resulted in a greater demand for nuclear energy, and therefore enrichment services. Urenco has taken the decision to expand its production under its so-called capacity programme plan based on market forecasting and customer demand as more governments put stable policy frameworks in place that are in favour of nuclear energy. The plan will enable Urenco to deliver increased capacity at all four of its uranium enrichment sites that are located in the UK, the Netherlands, the USA, and Germany. Managing tails is part of that process.

“We’ve seen the market change over the last couple of years. It’s important to say that we see that companies and utilities around the world are looking more and more towards nuclear power as a green energy source, and a sustainable one at that, so we do anticipate an increase in our services to a market where previously utilities may have not been using nuclear power,” says Stephens, adding: “If you look at the Emirates, for example, there are new entrants to the global sector. We expect to see other countries enter the nuclear arena too. That potentially gives us an increase to our enrichment services to those particular utilities or countries and we want to be available and ready to service those needs.”

Not only does Urenco envisage increasing customer demand as more countries and utility companies turn to nuclear energy but also opportunities as existing nuclear interests seek to diversify their sources of nuclear fuel. Stephens outlines just how dramatic the changes in the nuclear sector have been: “We were an organisation that until around February of last year was looking at perhaps being a smaller organization by 2030 in relation to the fact that nuclear power wasn’t seen as a sustainable path forward and from 2011, the Fukushima incident made the enrichment market a little bit less. There was a bit of an oversupply in the market and there were less new builds and there was less call for SWU services. However, since the conflict in Ukraine and the climate crisis has really come to the fore and with energy security concerns around the world, more and more countries and energy companies are turning to nuclear and seeking a diversity of their supply of nuclear fuel. That’s where we come in.”

Increasing enrichment in light of a potential uptick in demand, chimes in with the company’s capacity programme, which includes refurbishment of existing capacity as well as expansion and build out. Urenco’s first capacity expansion is to be at its US site in New Mexico. The project, announced in July this year, will see multiple new centrifuge cascades added to the plant. According to the company, new commitments from US customers for non-Russian fuel underpin this investment, which will provide an additional capacity of around 700 tonnes of SWU per year, a 15% increase. The first new cascades are scheduled to come online in 2025 and the expansion will be fully online by 2027.

Stephens explains: “Urenco is very much committed to strengthening energy security around the world and that’s been in question over the last two years. We’ll do this with our capacity programme which is about refurbishment of our existing facilities and centrifuges, but also expanding those with new facilities. This capacity programme is a really important part of how we deal with our tails, how we deal with creating new product.”

He adds: “LIke any owner of a manufacturing facility, we have aging equipment and we are replenishing that with new. With regards to refurb, it is no less complex or difficult. However, if you imagine we would over time replenish or refurbish some of our centrifuges, they do get old, some of them break down and that’s what the refurbishment campaign does, but it’s done over a sustained period of time and it’s at higher volumes than what we’ve done in recent decades.”

TMF expansion project

Referring to the Capenhurst TMF Stephens says: “We’re talking about an extension to an existing facility using the same technology that we have on kilns one and two. It’s purely an extension project it’s not new technology.”

Nonetheless, the new facility will see some limited updates. “When you buy engineered packages, systems and technology, they tend to become obsolescent over time but, essentially, we’re buying a very similar technology. The [existing UK] Tails Facility has been in operation since 2021 and finished construction in 2019.”

However, he emphasises that while there are some limited upgrades any changes only represent incremental improvements: “Our capacity programme is more of an evolutionary step than a revolutionary step. We’re replacing old existing centrifuges with new because they have an end of life. There are some certain 2.0 pieces that we have included, but they’re more around energy demand. They use much less electricity than they did before and they’re part of the continuous improvement efforts that we do. As an organisation that has agreed and signed to the climate pledge, part of what we do is look at how we can reduce our existing energy demand. Everything that we do is towards being a sustainable organization, meeting our net zero pledges, but also being good nuclear stewards.”

Indeed, Urenco is responsible for the safe and secure storage of tails for enrichment at a future date at enrichment sites or deconversion and the TMF is used for all Urenco’s tails it’s obligated to deal with or dispose of. As Stephens says: “Converting it to a safe form for storage and for reuse at another date is how we manage tails and we’re obligated to do that as the enricher. Everything that we enrich we have to take nuclear stewardship responsibility for that.” This excludes sites in the USA where the US Department of Energy is obligated to manage tails.

The TMF expansion is a substantial undertaking, effectively doubling tails management capacity, as Stephens notes: “We’ve got two kilns so we’ll at least double the amount of volume that we do now when we bring kilns three and four on online. Considering the amount of SWU we do a year, we take responsibility for the tails but not all of that will be done at TMF. We can store tails as well at our enrichment sites, for example. We have licences with the respective regulators that permit us only to store a certain amount. That’s why we have to do that processing work.”

“By expanding our Tails Management Facility from two to four kilns, it’ll enable us to process greater volumes and because we’ll be increasing our enrichment process we’ll have tails. We will take care of the end product of our enrichment services. That’s what TMF is designed to do,” Stephens adds.

Responsible nuclear stewardship is a clear strategy for Urenco. The company is already planning to site a Waste Metals Facility (WMF) at Capenhurst to manage metal waste product and residues as part of the programme to refurbish and renew plant across the company. Work has begun on further design activities, safety case development, preliminary waste acceptance criteria and procurement of long-lead items.

Ramping up recruitment

As part of the capacity programme, Urenco is also looking to increase staff numbers to match. “We are currently ramping up in our capacity expansion efforts to bring the necessary people into the organisation,” says Stephens.

Like much of the nuclear industry, that is potentially problematic but, according to Stephens, Urenco has managed the process quite effectively: “I think initially the sheer numbers of people looked daunting from the outset. However, when you do your project management and your programme management and you divide your integrated schedules and then you overlay when the projects are going to be actually executed, you have a demand curve and that demand curve is broken down by various disciplines,’ he explains, adding: “What we’ve done is gone to market with a reasonable and responsible demand curve and we haven’t had as many problems as perhaps some others for two reasons. One, because we knew what we needed and when in terms of people and disciplines and numbers and where to deploy them. And then, secondly, the narrative around what we do is rather interesting to a lot of people in the market.”

Stephens expands on this theme: “For one thing, we have a outlook of a programme that’s over 10 years. It touches on new technology, existing technology, and also looks at next gen fuels. The scope of what we’re doing is so vast and so wide that any engineer would get rather excited to be involved in numerous programmes like that. The experienced engineers get to touch on many different programmes and new technologies. For younger engineers we offer is working in different regions because we’re a global organisation. But the true one thing is that what you design on paper you can actually go and touch because, as you design it, we’re actually building the facility behind you. Not many engineers get the chance to do that, especially in the early parts of their career, so our offering is very unique compared to other companies in the market.”

He also points to a comprehensive knowledge transfer programme that supports the business: “We looked at retirees. Although we’ve got an ageing workforce, we’d already taken that into account before the capacity programme came into existence. So again, we haven’t seen the dips of retirement as other companies may have. We’re constantly regenerating and bringing people in of younger years. Although we’ve got this big opportunity in front of us, recruitment is something that we’ve always done. We’re just now doing that at a greater frequency and a bigger number. Shifting gears is not that difficult for Urenco. We’re an agile business that knows when we’ve got challenges and opportunities ahead of us that are achievable. We have a lot of knowledge and we have a good knowledge transfer programme for when those people do leave us and they pass on their legacy to other people in the organisation,” he says.

Next steps

The FEED stage for the TMF expansion is expected to take approximately 18 months to complete while the facility is scheduled to be completed in about seven years. Bechtel were chosen following a robust procurement process. “Bechtel have the capacity, they have the capability, they have a global reach, they come with pedigree and we want to be with a partner that can work with us. Bechtel have demonstrated their abilities to compliment us as an organisation so they’re very much part of our partnering community,” says Stephens.

In terms of the next steps, although the agreement for the FEED has only just been signed, the Bechtel team are already mobilising. “We know who the key people are and have been working with them for quite some months,” notes Stephens.

For any kind of capacity investment to be sustainable the industry needs stable policy frameworks as well as new customers and new demand. “The reason why [the capacity programme] has already started is because we have got those in certain countries. The USA is where most of our customers are and we have some new contracts there so the expansion is underwritten. We have new customers in Europe as well. Again, we have been underwritten by new customer contracts,” comments Stephens.

Indeed, earlier this year Urenco signed a new agreement for enrichment services to supply one of the two units at the Kozloduy nuclear power plant in Bulgaria. Kozloduy is state owned and the deal supports Bulgaria’s objectives to diversify their nuclear fuel supply chain. Urenco joins Cameco, Uranium Asset Management (UAM) and Westinghouse with the agreement seeing Urenco’s enrichment facilities in Europe receive natural uranium (UF6) from Cameco and supply enriched uranium for fabrication into nuclear fuel rods by Westinghouse.

The original TMF at Capenhurst was a billion-dollar investment and the expansion will bring a further multi- million investment as well. As Stephens concludes: “This is us being serious about our capacity programmes, expanding the amount of SWU we do in terms of energy security and we’ve had to back that with the investment in something which deals with our tails as a result of that enrichment.”