Frequently Asked Questions
Why are you building the plant?
One new commercial uranium enrichment facility has started operation in the U.S. and several others are planned for construction. Those facilities will produce large quantities of depleted uranium (DUF6) tails as a byproduct. Those Tails must be chemically converted, by removal of the fluorine, to put them into a stable chemical form for disposal. International Isotopes Inc. (INIS) has the only viable commercial solution for safe and environmentally focused de-conversion for the depleted uranium tails and will fill a “hole” in the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle by providing a toll service that is otherwise not commercially available. The operation of the INIS Integrated De-Conversion and Fluorine Extraction Process (FEP) facility will provide several significant environmental advantages such as:
- eliminating the need for uranium enrichment facilities to accumulate large on-site stockpiles of DUF6 tails on their sites;
- Producing environmentally and economically important products with our patented Fluorine Extraction Process (FEP) that are used in fabrication of solar panel films, microelectronics, and fiber optic cables; and
- Reducing the amount of some waste products by as much as 66% as compared to other UF6 de-conversion technologies
Where do you plan to build the plant?
We conducted a detailed site evaluation of several locations in our site location process that led us to choose a site about 15 miles west of Hobbs in Lea County, New Mexico.
First, it makes sense to locate our facility in an area that has good access for depleted uranium and its eventual disposal. By locating in New Mexico our facility is just 25 miles from the new URENCO enrichment facility. We are also in an excellent location for waste access to either the Energy Solutions site in Clive Utah or possibly the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) site being licensed in nearby Andrews County, Texas.
Second, since education and training is important to our Company, we wanted to locate in an area that would have adequate workforce training programs for the 130 to 150 full time personnel the Company will employ. It is also important that the location have additional educational opportunities for employees and their family members through local junior colleges and universities.
Third, it is very important that there be public acceptance of the project. Acceptance depends upon trust. Trust comes through openness of our Company and the public’s understanding of the process. Building in Lea County means building near a community that is already well educated on nuclear matters, which means we will be better able to explain the project to communities in these areas.
Fourth, the project needs to be in an area that can be suitably zoned and is free of congestion, but with adequate access to utilities and in an area appealing enough to help attract and retain a highly trained workforce.
And finally, Lea County has convenient access to well established transportation routes which provides safe access to both uranium enrichment plants as well as radioactive waste disposal sites.
What is depleted uranium hexafluoride (DUF6)?
DUF6 is a fluorine compound containing one uranium atom and six fluorine atoms. It is a solid at room temperature but becomes a gas at about 125 degrees Fahrenheit at atmospheric pressure.
How is DUF6 produced?
DUF6 is a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process. The fuel for a nuclear power plant is uranium, but only a certain type of uranium (uranium-235) can be easily split to produce energy. Uranium-235 makes up less than one percent of natural uranium that is mined from the ground, so before the uranium can be used as fuel it must be “enriched” to between three and five percent uranium-235. It requires about 10 pounds of natural uranium to produce a single pound of enriched uranium for reactor fuel. The remaining 9 pounds is considered “depleted” and is the by-product we will be paid to process.
The process of enriching uranium begins with the conversion of mined uranium oxide into uranium hexafluoride. In centrifuge enrichment plant like those planned to be built in Idaho, New Mexico and Ohio, the uranium hexafluoride is spun at high speeds in a centrifuge to create two uranium streams – one that has a higher concentration of uranium-235 and one that is “depleted” or is lower in uranium-235. This second stream is the DUF6 byproduct that will be used in the INIS plant.
Is DUF6 safe?
Yes, DUF6 is safe when it is managed, transported, and stored properly as it has been for decades. DUF6 can be hazardous if it reacts with water or ethanol to produce toxic fumes of hydrofluoric acid. It is a solid crystal below 125 degrees and is readily and securely contained in storage cylinders in this solid state.
How is DUF6 stored and transported?
The DUF6 is kept in sturdy metal cylinders before and after enrichment, as well as during storage and transportation. UF6 is generally transported by truck. Shipments of UF6 are regulated by both the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Isn’t DOE going to accept DUF6 for processing and disposal?
The DOE is obligated to accept and de-convert the DUF6 tails produced by commercial enrichment companies and DOE is currently building two facilities for de-conversion of DUF6 tails. However, the DOE already has a stockpile of over 700,000 metric tons of DUF6 tails that will take the DOE about 25 years to process before they can process commercially-produced UF6 tails. Therefore, the DUF6 processing facility proposed by INIS can help manage and dispose commercially-produced DUF6 sooner, and at lower cost, than the facilities being built by DOE.
How does the FEP work?
FEP is a simple, one step reaction process between two granular solid materials. Specifically the INIS plant will convert DUF6 to depleted uranium tetrafluoride (DUF4) and then use that DUF4 as a feedstock for the FEP process in combination with a metal oxide such as silicon oxide (sand).
These solids are mixed together and heated in a reaction chamber to the appropriate temperature. Once at temperature pure fluorine gas separates from the uranium and combines with the silicon oxide to form silicon tetrafluoride (SiF4) gas. The gas is collected in cylinders and the uranium is converted to a stable oxide form that is suitable for disposal. The following chemical equation summarizes this robust process:
UF4 (solid) + SiO2 (solid) + Heat = UO2 (solid) + SiF4 (gas)
What wastes will be produced at the plant and where will they be disposed?
The low level uranium waste that ultimately results from the de-conversion process will be disposed of in a commercial low level waste facility such as the Energy Solutions site in Clive, Utah, or possibly the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) site in Andrews County Texas.
What products will be produced at the plant and where will they be sold?
The major product produced by this plant will be fluoride gases such as silicon tetrafluoride gas (SiF4). These fluoride product gases are used in many industrial processes such as microelectronic circuit manufacturing and even production of thin film photovoltaics for applications such as solar cells. INIS will sell the SiF4 to larger gas companies who in turn supply to the electronic manufacturing industry.
What other materials could be produced at the plant?
Another important by-product that can be recovered in the de-conversion process is anhydrous hydrofluoric acid (HF). In this chemical form HF is a very important and useful product for many important industrial process applications. INIS plans to collect and purify this by-product and sell it to appropriate commercial interests.
How many people will the plant employ?
Our initial estimates are that approximately 300 people will be required for construction of the facility. We will initially hire a core staff of about 20-30 people for engineering, training, and construction interface with our design and build contractor. We will eventually hire a staff of about 130 full time employees for the phase 1 facility. Some additional phases of expansion are planned that will add 20-30 additional employees per phased expansion. These will be high paying positions with excellent benefit and incentive packages.
Will the plant use a lot of water?
No. In keeping with the environmental commitment INIS is making for this plant, the company will utilize a stringent water recovery and reuse program to absolutely minimize water usage by operations. It is expected that water usage can be limited to less than 10,000 gallons per day of total water consumption.
Who will conduct safety oversight of the plant?
The plant will be licensed, regulated, and inspected by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC employs a very extensive scientific, objective, and thorough licensing process and gives citizens multiple opportunities to review and comment on the planned operations.
Throughout construction, NRC inspectors will verify that the design, construction, installation and tests of safety-significant features, equipment and components comply with the license and NRC regulations.
As construction nears completion, the NRC will conduct inspections of the most safety-significant features, including but not limited to chemical safety, fire protection, radiological controls, emergency preparedness, and training and qualification of facility personnel. Operations cannot begin until the NRC determines, based on these inspection results that the facility can operate safely.
And finally, after receiving all necessary licenses, but before operations can begin, we will be required to provide financial assurance for the complete decommissioning, cleanup, and total restoration of the plant to pre-construction conditions. That financial assurance is required to be reviewed periodically to ensure continued ability to fund decommissioning and remains in place throughout the operating lifetime of the facility.