Energy Department seeks to help USEC

The Energy Department is considering the purchase of experimental centrifuges from the United States Enrichment Corp as a way of channeling money to the ailing nuclear fuel company, which says it needs an infusion of cash by the end of the month.

The Bethesda, Md.-based USEC is trying to tap government funds for the continued research and development of the American Centrifuge project, an Ohio plant that would enrich uranium for use in nuclear power reactors more cheaply than USEC’s current energy-intensive plant in Kentucky.

USEC broke ground on the project in 2007 and has a couple of dozen commercial-scale centrifuges operating. A power problem last year damaged six of the centrifuges last summer. The company plans to ultimately build thousands of centrifuges there.

USEC has applied, but has not received, a $2 billion federal loan guarantee for the plant. The Energy Department has backed the payment of $300 million of grants to the project, but Congress has not given the department appropriations or permission to transfer funds.

With days left before USEC has pledged to shut down work at the American Centrifuge project, Ohio lawmakers and the Energy Department have been working on ways to get money to USEC, but most are part of legislation that would apply to fiscal year 2013.

“The Department is evaluating several options to move the project forward this year that would enable continued investment in the development of this technology while protecting taxpayer interests,” said Energy Department spokesman Jen Stutsman. “The purchase of some of the centrifuge machines is just one of a few possible options under consideration. No final decisions have been made.”

Steven Mufson covers energy and other financial news.
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