Orano plans extension of uranium enrichment capacity

13 September 2023

France’s Orano has announced plans to extend enrichment capacity at its Georges Besse II (GB-II) uranium enrichment plant, and has begun the regulatory process to produce HALEU there. François Lurin, Senior Executive Vice President of Orano's Chemistry-Enrichment Business Unit, revealed Orano’s enrichment plans in a video interview released on social media to coincide with World Nuclear Symposium 2023. The issue had been under consideration for around a year after requests from some US and European customers seeking alternatives to Russian sources of supply.

In his video, Lurin confirmed that this was still the case. "We have been considering various options and we have concluded that the only way to supply additional needs was to build an extension to our existing capacities and the primary choice we would be able to make is to build up an extension on our Tricastin site at GB-II plant," Lurin noted

"We are happy to say that we would be able to start up production in 2028, with a ramp-up over two to three years up to a nominal production in 2030. Obviously, this is subject to the final approval of the board and also to receiving firm orders from our customers given the magnitude of the investment," he added, but said the company is "pretty confident" that approval would be given soon.

According to Lurin, customers have also approached Orano about supplying higher enrichment assays – LEU+ (Low enriched uranium with up to 5-8% uranium-235). The first step would be an increase from 5% to 6%. "We have initiated the regulatory process to obtain approval to do this. We should be able to provide higher enrichment essays up to 6% by 2025,” he said.

Further increases from 6% to 8% would require additional investment in the GB-II plant. Lurin said Orano will launch this after it obtains "firm commitments" from customers. The regulatory process will take up to three years.

Orano "should be able" to provide the various forms of enriched uranium to supply the various small modular reactor (SMR) and advanced reactor technologies now being developed, Lurin noted. Orano can produce the high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) required by these reactors either by enrichment at existing facilities, or by deconversion of uranium hexafluoride, he said.

"We have also in the past had capacities and equipment to provide such material, so we know how to do it. We are ready to invest but we need firm commitments from our customers or additional funding from other parties to do so and to launch these investments."

The GB-II gas centrifuge enrichment plant, which replaced the ageing Georges Besse I gaseous diffusion enrichment plant, was opened in December 2010 and began commercial operation in April 2011. In October 2022, Orano said it had decided to increase its production capacity by 30%, which could involve an extension of the GB-II plant. The National Commission for Public Debate (CNDP - Commission Nationale du Débat Public) therefore announced that it was relaunching a consultation on GB-II to consider increasing the plant's capacity from 7.5m to 11m SWU (separative work units) a year. The cost of the project was then estimated at €1.3bn ($1.4bn).

Construction of GB-II, was previously the subject of a public debate in 2004, which then also considered increasing the plant's capacities from the planned 7.5m to 11m SWU. Currently GB-II is running at full capacity to produce 7.5m SWU. Announcing its decision to reopen the debate, CNDP said last year that it had received a letter from Orano CEO Philippe Knoche requesting a decision on the terms for the follow-up public participation. The CNDP noted that more than five years has passed since the earlier public debate, citing a public consultation on energy announced by the French government, and support for increasing uranium enrichment capacities because of possible European sanctions on Russia that could lead to a shortage in nuclear fuels.

The project provided for the creation of four additional natural uranium enrichment modules located to the north of the North Unit (from 6 to 10 modules). These would be identical to the existing modules. In June 2022 Lurin said he was considering either an expansion of the GB II plant or the construction of a new site.

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