“We do believe that having more suppliers is going to be helpful from a competitive supply standpoint,” said Marshall Murphy, spokesman for Exelon’s nuclear power business, a USEC customer.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said that the United States also needs “indigenous” enrichment technology to provide enough tritium for nuclear weapons and highly enriched uranium for U.S. naval reactors on submarines and warships. The TVA uses about 2 percent of USEC’s enriched uranium to power a process producing tritium, a hydrogen isotope with a half life of 12 years. U.S. agreements with foreign-owned enrichment facilities in the United States bar them from doing anything to promote military purposes, the Energy Department says.
“As President Obama has said, while we envision a world without nuclear weapons, until that day comes we must ensure that our deterrent is safe, secure and effective,” Chu wrote in a Dec. 1 letter to Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).
But Bunn said — and the Energy Department concedes — that the United States has the ability to make enough tritium for many years and fuel for naval reactors to last several decades. “I don’t see it as a huge issue,” Bunn said. Markey has argued that USEC could produce, within a few months, enough tritium to meet U.S. needs for another half century.
Sokolski adds that the limits on foreign suppliers are largely set by the U.S. government, which could alter agreements to allow European-owned facilities in the United States to provide the military with whatever small amounts of uranium might be needed. In addition, the government has its own uranium stockpiles.
Chu said that U.S.-origin fuel also gives the United States greater clout in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the multilateral organization that tries to limit enrichment and reprocessing technology. As a senior Energy Department official put it: “They don’t listen to us because we’re charming, but because we’re a big player.”
However, USEC’s effort to wave the American flag could run into opposition because of the firm’s agreement to explore a venture to open the U.S. market to a Russian enrichment plant. Many lawmakers oppose such a move, citing Russia’s aid to Iran’s nuclear program despite U.S. and European sanctions.
All these would be moot points if USEC were thriving. But it isn’t. Its Paducah, Ky., facility, leased from the government, uses a decades-old method of enriching uranium known as gaseous diffusion.
The process requires vast quantities of electricity, nearly 50 times as much as Urenco’s New Mexico plant. At its peak, the company consumed the equivalent of two nuclear power plants’ output. Today, operating at much lower volumes, USEC still uses as much as 1,650 megawatts of electricity, which accounts for 70 percent of its costs, the company says.