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Industry plans for uranium deconversion plant near Hobbs

On Thursday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will be hosting a public meeting about a proposed uranium deconversion plant near Hobbs, N.M.

In 2009, International Isotopes submitted an application to the NRC, which oversees the nation’s nuclear power plants and other nuclear facilities. At the proposed Fluorine Extraction Process and Depleted Uranium Deconversion Plant, depleted uranium hexafluoride will be “deconverted” into fluorine products for commercial sale.

Although the NRC has accepted the company’s application and approved its safety report, it still needs to approve the Environmental Impact Statement, a study that will guide the plant’s construction and 40-year operating license.

According to Steve Laflin, the president and CEO of International Isotopes, when natural uranium hexafluoride is prepared for use in a reactor, it leaves waste behind.

The proposed plant in southern New Mexico would take depleted uranium hexafluoride —coming from URENCO USA’s new enrichment facility in nearby Eunice—and extract the fluoride.

Fluoride has thousands of uses, says Laflin, and is often used in pharmaceuticals and manufacturing processes involving silicon.

“We really brag about this project in terms of its green nature,” he says. “We’re recycling material, and preventing it from becoming a large waste stockpile and a liability to anyone elsewhere.”

As for the waste product—the depleted uranium—Laflin says it is “Class A” radioactive waste, which is the lowest class.

“There are several licensed disposal facilities in the US—one is operated by the (U.S. Department of Energy) in Nevada, and there’s a commercial facility in Utah,” he says. “Then there’s the waste control specialist site soon to open in West Texas.”

Don Hancock, with Southwest Research and Information Center says it is important for people to pay attention to what is happening in southern New Mexico.

The deconversion plant would be new to New Mexico, but it’s also unique worldwide. According to Hancock, there are only two other deconversion plants in the world—one in Paducah, KY and the other in Portsmouth, OH.

“International Isotope’s would be the third facility in the world—and nobody, including International Isotopes, really has a track record in operating these unique facilities,” Hancock says. “And the reason this unique facility is being built is because of the other unique facility, the URENCO USA enrichment facility. The reason International Isotopes is here is because URENCO is here.”

To join the NRC's June 28th audio meeting, contact Cynthia Taylor, NRC, Region II, at (404) 997-4480 or Cynthia.Taylor@nrc.gov.