February 19, 2010

Uranium Enrichment Economics

NEI Magazine looks at the history and details of the SWU (enrichment) market

The capacity of all these potential centrifuge and laser projects totals almost 90 million SWU per year, sufficient to meet the needs of WNA’s Upper Scenario for the year 2024, and well in excess of requirements before that year and for the other two scenarios.

Enrichment requirements for the world’s growing fleet of nuclear power plants are expected to expand significantly. Current enrichment capacity on a world-wide basis is just sufficient to meet requirements, but the potential pace of enrichment capacity expansion is expected to out-strip the growth in requirements. Thus, it is not likely that all this expansion potential will come to fruition. The continuation of enrichment trade restrictions in the USA and European Union (EU) will have a major bearing on which projects go forward. Perhaps the biggest uncertainties are the status of USEC’s American Centrifuge Project (ACP) and the feasibility of GE Hitachi-Global Laser Enrichment LLC’s (GLE) laser-based SILEX process.

The potential outlook for primary production, shown in Figure above, points toward a large increase in capacity. Russia’s Rosatom plans to increase capacity, between expansion at its existing four facilities and the International Uranium Enrichment Center, by almost 50 percent – up to an eventual level of about 38 million SWU per year. CNNC in China is increasing its capacity of Russian-supplied centrifuges by 50 percent.

The Economics of enrichment of uranium

Los Alamos estimate -
For a laser isotope separation process involving selective excitation of 235UF6 molecules with infrared lasers and their dissociation with an ultraviolet laser, a facility with the standard capacity of 8.75 millions SWU per year is estimated to cost about 1 billion dollars. (Laser casts account for approximately half of the direct capital costs.) This is considerably lower than the estimated cost of a new gaseous diffusion plant (about 5 billion dollars) or that of a gas centrifuge plant (about 6 billion dollars).

The annual operating cost for a laser isotope separation facility is estimated to be about 100 million dollars, in contrast to about 500 million for a gaseous diffusion plant and 100 to 200 million for a gas centrifuge plant. Our estimates of capital and operating costs for a laser isotope separation facility indicate a cost per SWU of about $30/kg.

Depleted Uranium left over from previous enrichment has one third of the uranium percentage as natural uranium. There is about 1.5 million tons of depleted uranium with 0.3 percent U-235 About 100,000 tons of 5% enriched uranium fuel could be produced from the depleted uranium.

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