Fuel review: conversion

Room for expansion

1 September 2008

Over the next few years the conversion market must undergo expansion to meet the growing industry requirements. By Julian Steyn and Sergey Danilov

There have been a number of changes in the uranium hexafluoride (UF6) conversion services market during the past year. In May 2007, Areva announced plans to construct a large new plant to replace its existing ageing capacity and to expand that capacity. Cameco shut down the UF6 operations at its Port Hope plant because of soil contamination in July 2007. In February of this year, the USA and Russia agreed to an amendment of the ‘Suspension Agreement’ which will allow imports into the USA of enriched uranium product (EUP) containing equivalent conversion services between 2011 and 2020. On 3 June 2008, Cameco and Kazatomprom announced the establishment of Ulba Conversion for the purpose of beginning a feasibility study to evaluate constructing a conversion plant in Kazakhstan. In spite of the Cameco shutdown, the outlook is for supply expansion to meet growing requirements.

In 2007, conversion services market prices remained relatively stable, unlike those of the uranium supply market. The North American conversion services spot market price ranged between $11.00 and $12.00 per kgU as UF6 for most of 2005, 2006, and 2007. The price, as reported by TradeTech, drifted down to $9.00 per kgU in November 2007 and has remained at that level since then. The long-term North American market price has been $12.25 per kgU since the end of June 2006. The European conversion services spot market price was between $11.00 and $12.00 per kgU throughout most of 2005 and 2006, but has since fallen to $10.00. The European long-term price has been approximately one dollar higher than the North American long-term price, and is currently $13.00 per kgU.

During the past year the conversion services industry has begun to respond to the utility industry’s supply concerns. The world U3O8 to UF6 conversion services market supply capability is now beginning to undergo the necessary expansion to meet the growth that is projected for the nuclear renaissance that is forecast to lie ahead. In May 2007 the capacity of Honeywell’s Metropolis plant in Illinois was expanded substantially. During the same month, Areva announced that new facilities in the south of France would go into operation in 2012 and would eventually have a capacity that would be 50% greater than that of its current facilities. It is also reported that Rosatom’s capacity will be significantly reorganised, modernised and increased between now and 2015. ConverDyn has indicated that it is considering construction of a plant in Western Europe. While supply capacity is presently adequate to meet Energy Resources International (ERI) reference nuclear power growth forecast requirements, it is only because significant supply in the form of inventory, particularly Russian highly enriched uranium (HEU), is available through 2013. It is expected that there will be a need for several new plants if the high growth forecast becomes a reality.

Primary Supply

The sustainable capacities of the primary conversion suppliers when combined with the government and commercial inventories in all forms (including plutonium and uranium recycle savings), provide the necessary supply to meet the world’s requirements for UF6. The world currently has four major commercial primary suppliers of conversion services, one or more of which can transform uranium mine concentrates into either UF6, ceramic grade uranium dioxide (UO2), or uranium metal.

The four current major converters of uranium concentrates to UF6 are: Cameco, Areva NC, ConverDyn, and Rosatom. In addition, the recently established Ulba Conversion entity plans to bring a large plant into production in the next decade. The data in the first Table projects the world’s conversion services primary and secondary supply capacity through 2030. The total projected supply may be compared to the ERI-projected reference and high case requirements.

Cameco operates the 18,000tU per year UO3 plant at Blind River, Ontario, and processes the UO3 at its 12,500tU per year UF6 plant and 2800t UO2 plant at Port Hope, Ontario. Cameco has filed a licence application to expand the capacity of its Blind River UO3 facility from 18,000tU to 24,000tU, and anticipates approval in the second half of this year. Production of UF6 at Port Hope in 2007 was reduced to approximately 5000tU, about half of normal capacity, due to the facility being shut down in July 2007 because soil under the UF6 section of the plant was found to be contaminated by uranium and chemicals associated with production. Cameco expects to resume production following remedial activities and approval of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) regulatory authority, in the third quarter of 2008 at the earliest.

In mid 2006, Cameco began shipping approximately 5000tU UO3 annually from Blind River in Canada to the former BNFL plant at Springfields in the UK, under a toll conversion contract that extends through 2016. This arrangement boosts Cameco’s overall sustainable UF6 capacity to approximately 15,500tU per year.

Cameco has met its obligations during the past year with supply from Springfields and through customer voluntary deferrals of deliveries and UF6 conversion services purchases.

Flame reactor for conversion of UF4 to UF6
Credit: Areva
Flame reactor for conversion of UF4 to UF6, Comurhex Pierrelatte plant, Tricastin, France

Areva NC operates the Malvési UF4 plant at Narbonne whose product is converted to UF6 at the Pierrelatte plant at its Tricastin site; the existing complex is currently referred to as Comurhex I. Production of UF6 in 2007 was reported to have been 13,700tU. In May 2007, Areva announced that it had decided to replace its ageing Malvési and Pierrelatte facilities with new facilities at the same site. Site work, engineering and permitting for the 15,000tU Comurhex II facilities was started in the summer of 2007 and civil engineering will begin in early 2009, with first industrial production scheduled for 2012. The plant design will accommodate expansion to 21,000tU as the market dictates.

ConverDyn, a general partnership of affiliates of Honeywell and General Atomics, is the exclusive agent for conversion services provided by the Metropolis Works plant in Illinois. The Metropolis plant was shut down for most of May 2007 in order to phase into operation new equipment required to increase the plant’s annual capacity to 15,000tU. There are plans to expand the plant’s capacity to 18,000tU by about 2013. ConverDyn has also indicated that it is considering the construction of a new plant in Western Europe, but has not said where.

Ulba Conversion was established by Cameco and NAC Kazatomprom on 3 June 2008, for the specific purpose of performing an evaluation of constructing a 12,000t UF6 conversion plant at the Ulba Metallurgical facility in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan. The plant would be owned 51% by Kazatomprom and 49% by Cameco, with Cameco providing the necessary technology. The first stage of the evaluation is being jointly funded and is expected to be completed next year. While no firm proposed schedule has been stated, it has been reported in the press that plant startup in 2014 and ramping up to full capacity by 2018 is being considered. It is the author’s view that prioritising substantial investment for enrichment capacity at Angarsk, fuel fabrication in Ulba, and a nuclear power plant at Aktau could push the new conversion plant to the bottom of the list and certainly result in delay. However, the fact that Cameco and Kazatomprom have agreed to increase the production capacity of their Inkai uranium mine project from 5.2 to 10.4 million pounds of concentrate annually, beginning in about 2012, indicates that there is an incentive to build conversion capacity sooner rather than later.

Russia, through the government nuclear entity, Rosatom, has UF6 producing conversion plants operated by the joint stock company (JSC) Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Complex (AECC) and the Siberian Chemical Combine (SCC) enrichment companies. These two entities receive uranium tetrafluoride (UF4) feedstock from the JSC Chepetsk Mechanical Plant and concentrates from domestic and foreign uranium mining enterprises. SCC also receives uranyl nitrate from uranium metal produced by Chepetsk that is processed at JSC Novosibirsk. The Chepetsk plant converts domestic, foreign, and inventory (state reserves) uranium concentrates into UF4 and uranium metal. SCC also receives reprocessed uranium (RepU) supplied by France.

The AECC plans to construct a refining capacity at Angarsk to take concentrates directly to UF6 in order to exclude both the Chepetsk plant in Russia and the JSC Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Kazakhstan from the supply chain beginning in about 2010.

The Moscow consulting company, International Business Relations (IBR) has reported the 2007 and 2015 projected installed and actually used capacities (see Table 2).

It is likely that the 2015 total used capacity will be lower than that indicated in the Table, possibly as low as 20,000tU. This is because of the realities of concentrate supply from multiple domestic and import sources and possible lower than anticipated nuclear power growth in Russia. The 2007 capacities shown in the Table for SCC include UF6 produced from about 3300tU as RepU. The 2015 quantities include conversion of about 2000tU of RepU.

Secondary supply

There are substantial secondary supplies of commercial equivalent UF6 projected through the next few decades. This supply ranges between 20,000-25,000tU per year until 2013 after which it declines to about 10,000tU by 2030. Through 2013 the secondary supply from Russian HEU amounts to about 10,000tU. Secondary supply provided by recycle of plutonium and a small amount of uranium is projected to rise to about 4000tU by about 2012 and remain at about that level through 2030. Miscellaneous inventories held by the US Department of Energy (DoE) and tails upgraded in Russia could provide a total of about 10,000tU per year between about 2010 and 2020 and then decline to about 7000tU per year in the 2020s.


The ERI nuclear power forecasts used in this analysis were developed on a plant-by-plant and country-by-country basis. The projections took into consideration social, political, and economic conditions in those countries currently implementing the nuclear option. The nuclear power forecasts, nuclear fuel design, and management parameters for specific reactor types were used to project the conversion services requirements through the year 2030. The requirements for each US nuclear power plant now operating or under construction take into account plant discharge burnup, reload enrichments, fuel cycle lengths, first core and reload lead times, and capacity factors. Generic plant type and country-specific operating and fuel cycle characteristics were taken into account for nuclear power plants outside the USA, and recycle was included for certain countries in Western Europe and in Japan.

World reference case UF6 requirements are projected to rise gradually from 57,000tU in 2007 to 89,300tU by 2025. World high case requirements are projected to rise gradually to 113,800tU by 2030.

The Figure shows the projected expanding supply capability and growing ERI reference and high case requirements projections through 2030. It can be seen that the announced expansions of existing facilities and secondary supply are projected to provide adequate supply to meet the reference case requirements through 2030. Projected supply that includes the planned Ulba facility may be expected to meet the high case requirements through about 2022.

After 2030, either expansion of the then-existing plants or new plants will be required to meet the reference case requirements growth that are currently forecast. In the high case, new and expanded plants will be required about eight years earlier.

Author Info:

Julian Steyn, President, Energy Resources International, Inc., Washington, DC, USA; Sergey Danilov, President, International Business Relations Corporation, Moscow, Russian Federation

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Table 1
Table 2

Flame reactor for conversion of UF4 to UF6 Flame reactor for conversion of UF4 to UF6

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