The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has launched a special inspection at the Urenco USA (UUSA) uranium enrichment facility in Eunice, New Mexico. The inspection follows an April 2021 incident involving the operation of a crane near a building that handles uranium hexafluoride without the required safety controls present.
NRC said the facility is safe, but the event raises concerns about safety protocols at the site and warrants additional inspection as it involves a breakdown of controls designed to prevent chemical, radiological, and criticality hazards a key concern at US fuel cycle facilities. Two similar events occurred in 2022, prompting the NRC to propose that Urenco USA should receive a $70,000 civil penalty earlier this month.
Inspectors from the NRC’s Region II office in Atlanta are now at the UUSA plant. Over several days, they will assess the effectiveness of previous corrective actions taken by the facility to implement safety controls during construction activities and evaluate the appropriateness of the company's overall response. The inspection team will document their findings and conclusions in a public report typically issued within 45 days of the completion of the inspection.
“The recurrence of safety incidents at the Urenco USA fuel fabrication facility is concerning, and we expect all our licence holders to prioritise safety, strictly adhere to the highest standards, and take prompt action to correct deficiencies,” said NRC Region II Administrator Laura Dudes. “We're committed to holding all NRC licence holders accountable and taking appropriate action to protect public health and safety.”
Urenco’s activities in the USA date back to 1992, when the Treaty of Washington paved the way for its centrifuge technology to be deployed in the United States. The company originally planned to operate in the state of Louisiana, but because of more positive community support, the National Enrichment Facility was built in Eunice, New Mexico. However, because of the original plan, the official licensee is Louisiana Energy Services while the business name is UUSA.
This was the first new nuclear project in the USA in almost 30 years. The $5bn facility was one of the largest construction projects in the state of New Mexico. It was the first project to be issued a combined construction & operating licence by NRC. Construction began in 2006 and was completed in three phases. The site began producing enriched uranium in June 2010 and the first customer delivery was completed in March 2012. The plant currently has 64 cascades online and produces about 5M SWU a year, which is sufficient capacity to meet approximately one-third of the annual US demand.
Image: Urenco's uranium enrichment facility in Eunice, New Mexico (courtesy of Urenco)