French nuclear group Orano (formerly called Areva) on 10 September inaugurated a €1.15 billion ($1.33 billion) uranium conversion plant. The new plant in Tricastin, southern France, will account for a quarter of the world’s 60,000-tonne annual uranium hexafluoride (UF6) production capacity when operating at full capacity in 2021 and is set to have the industry’s lowest costs, the company said.  

From 2019, the new facility – the Philippe Coste plant – will have capacity of 7500t and output of about 5000t ramping up to 15,000t when construction is completed.

Orano in December 2017 ceased UF6 production at its ageing 15,000t/year capacity Comurhex conversion plant in Tricastin, and will serve utilities from its stockpiles until the new plant comes online and global overcapacity subsides.

In November 2017, Honeywell International Inc also suspended UF6 production at its 15,000-tonne capacity Metropolis, Illinois plant, the only such conversion plant in the USA.

Orano and Canada’s Cameco Corp are estimated to each have about a quarter of global uranium conversion capacity, while Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom has slightly more than a quarter and China’s CNNC slightly less than a quarter.

Orano CEO Philippe Knoche told reporters the order book was full for the next 10 years, but added that profitability would remain challenging at current conversion rates. Following the plant closures, rates doubled to about $10 per kilogram over the past year, but are still considered too low for long-term profitability. Knoche said EDF had committed to buy about a third of the new output, with the rest being sold mainly under long-term contracts to about 70 utilities in the USA, China, Japan, South Korea and several European countries. Short-term contracts of less than three years will account for 10-20% of the output. The uranium will come from Areva and other companies’ mines in Niger, Kazakhstan, Canada, South Africa and Namibia.

Orano board Chairman Philippe Varin said new conversion plant had been under development for 10 years and had been upgraded as part of Orano’s modernisation of its fuel facilities, in which the group has invested over €5 billion over the past decade. “This new facility is a long-term commitment,” said Varin.

Orano said the new plant incorporates "technological innovations" in terms of safety, the environment and improved industrial performance. It enables recycling of chemical reagents, offers a reduction in water consumption of as much as 90% and features extensive automation of instrumentation and control functions to improve management of the process. Its construction has involved more than 240 companies, most of them local.

"Orano is the first manufacturer to renew its conversion plants, and that is a decisive competitive advantage,” said Varin. “This plant will be a symbol for French industry going forward, capable of building high technology facilities that are safe and respectful of the environment.” The Philippe Coste conversion plant will work closely with the new George Besse II uranium enrichment facility, also at Tricastin, for more efficient nuclear fuel production.