Kazakhstan and a US-based company are to set up a joint venture to make fuel for civilian nuclear power plants.

Under the deal, Global Nuclear Fuel-Americas (GNF) — a US-based joint venture based in Wilmington (North Carolina) set up by General Electric, Hitachi and Toshiba – will deliver uranium concentrates to the Ulba metallurgical plant in Oskemen. The Ulba plant, which manufactured nuclear weapons during the Soviet period, will apply a patented solvent extraction process to recover low-enriched uranium from the uranium concentrates, which are a by-product of GNF’s nuclear fuel production procedure. The low-enriched uranium will then be sent back to GNF, which will use it to turn out fuel rods for boiling-water reactors at nuclear power plants.

RWE Nukem, a US uranium trading company based in Danbury (Connecticut), will assist GNF and manage the project, and the Brookhaven National Laboratory, which is part of the US Department of Energy, will provide technical assistance.

The quantity of uranium concentrate involved is not clear, although Reuters quoted sources who said several dozen tonnes of material might be involved.

The US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) under its Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPR) will provide $1.2 million in funding over three years to Kazatomprom, Kazakhstan’s national nuclear corporation, to help the Ulba plant work with Brookhaven to design and install the necessary technology for the process for commercial use. GNF, meanwhile, has said it will invest $3 million.

Ulba already has a contract with Brush Wellman to sell beryllium on the world market. It also has contracts with General Electric and BNFL that may result in fuel pellets being certified in the next year or two.