CANADA Although technically a single process, the refining and conversion of natural uranium in Canada takes place at two separate facilities: refining in Blind River and conversion in Port Hope, both located in the province of Ontario and both owned by Cameco Corporation.
Cameco Blind River was built in 1983 and receives UOC from mines and mills in Canada and around the world and refines it into uranium trioxide (UO3), most of which is sent directly to Cameco Port Hope, although some is exported. The capacity of Blind River is approximately 18,000tU per year. The conversion plant at Port Hope has a longer history, going back to 1935 as a radium extraction facility. Today, it converts UO3 into either UF6, which is exported for subsequent enrichment, or UO2, which is primarily used for the domestic production of CANDU fuel. The throughput of the UF6 plant is approximately 12, 500tU per year while the UO2 plant processes around 2,000tU per year.
CHINA There is very little information publicly available on China’s uranium conversion facilities, and there are differing reports on their operational capacity. China is commonly reported as having a UOC conversion capacity of 3,000tU per year, placing it far below the capacity of other international converters. The World Nuclear Association reports that a conversion plant at Lanzhou with a capacity of about 1,000 tU per year started operation in 1980 but may now be closed, and that another conversion plant at Diwopu in Gansu province has a capacity of about 500tU per year.
Due to the relatively small capacity of these plants compared to other international conversion centres, these facilities are most likely primarily dedicated to domestic supply needs. Despite the currently low capacity of China’s conversion facilities, it is still serving as a commercial converter for foreign entities in certain cases. For instance, Uzbekistan, which is mining 2,300 to 2,600 tonnes of uranium per year, is currently using Chinese facilities to convert its uranium. After undergoing further processing at the hydrometallurgical plant in Navoi, a portion of the uranium concentrate is shipped by rail to Alashankou in China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang for delivery to Chinese conversion facilities.
Meanwhile, China’s plans however for further conversion capacity planned at the new China Nuclear Fuel Element Co (CNFEC) plant at Daying Industrial Park in Heshan city, Guangdon province was cancelled in July 2013 in response to protests by the public.
FRANCE In 1958, France built a new conversion plant at Malvesi (inaugurated in 1969), releasing the facility at Le Bouchet, which had been operating since 1948, for special or complementary production. After Le Bouchet was closed in 1971, the COMURHEX plant at Malvesi became the only operating conversion plant in France. Physically, Malvesi serves as a "warehouse" for most imported natural uranium before the yellowcake is converted for either domestic use or re-exported for use abroad. By the end of 2010, stocks amounted to approximately 15,913 tonnes. France’s AREVA and its conversion facility Comerhux Pierrelatte is scheduled to begin operation by 2015.
KAZAKHSTAN Kazatomprom in Kazakhstan is also considering building what would be its first uranium refinery plant, following a 2012 agreement with Cameco. The project is still in the design stages.
RUSSIA Natural uranium is used by TVEL fuel company, a subsidiary of Rosatom, to make nuclear fuel for Russia’s own nuclear power plants (NPPs) and nuclear power plants in foreign countries, as well as to fulfill Techsnabexport contracts for uranium enrichment services and deliveries of enriched uranium product. As part of that process, natural uranium undergoes a conversion to uranium hexafluoride (UF6) and is then delivered to uranium enrichment plants.
Until recently, Russia had three uranium conversion facilities in operation: the Siberian Chemical Combine (SKhK, Tomsk Region, Siberian Federal District), the Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Combine (AEKhK, Irkutsk Region, Siberian Federal District), and the Chepetsk Mechanical Plant (ChMZ, the Republic of Udmurtia, Volga Federal District). The former two facilities produced uranium hexafluoride (UF6). The facility at ChMZ produced uranium tetrafluoride (UF4), which was then supplied to AEKhK, where it was converted to hexafluoride. The combined annual output capacity of the three facilities was 25,000 tonnes of uranium (tonnes U as UF6). According to various estimates, however, only 35-55 percent of that capacity was actually in use. The equivalent figure for large uranium conversion facilities in other countries is in the range of 70-85 percent.
As part of its optimization and cost cutting program, Rosatom state nuclear energy corporation has decided to concentrate all its UF6 production at a single facility. The new conversion facility will be set up at SKhK to replace the existing one, which was built about 50 years ago for the Soviet nuclear weapons program. SKhK was chosen to host the new facility, among other reasons, due to its easier logistics. The site offers advantages over ChMZ and AEKhK in terms of the convenience of transportation of raw materials (i.e. natural and reprocessed uranium) and the UF6. The conversion facility at AEKhK was shut down on April 1, 2014. ChMZ will follow after the launch of the first stage of the new conversion facility at SKhK. An estimated 12 billion rubles (more than $350 million USD) will be spent on building the new Rosatom conversion plant.
The new conversion facility will use natural as well as reprocessed uranium (RepU). Its projected output is 18,000tU per year for natural uranium, and 2,000tU per year for RepU, The launch of the new facility at SKhK is expected to slash Russian costs by 50 percent from $10 USD/kgU in 2014 to $5 USD/kgU. The facility will employ 400 people, and the investment is expected to be recouped in eight years’ time.
The original plan was to start building the new facility at SKhK in late 2013 and launch it in 2016. All these deadlines have now been pushed two years back because of the unfavorable market situation following the Fukushima nuclear accident. SKhK expects to obtain all the necessary licenses for the construction of the new conversion facility in 2015.
UNITED STATES One conversion plant is operating in the United States, the Honeywell Metropolis Works Plant (MTW) in Metropolis, Illinois. The facility began operation in 1958, was mothballed in 1964 and rehabilitated and re-opened in 1968 as a private converter. ConverDyn was created in 1992 and is a partnership between Honeywell and General Atomics and is the exclusive agent for conversion sales from Metropolis, including coordinating and managing conversion-related services to nuclear utilities in the USA, Europe and Asia. These services include uranium deliveries, sampling, materials storage and product delivery. The MTW is capable of converting over 36 million pounds (16,000 tonnes) of U3O8 into UF6 annually.
The MTW shut down production in May 2012 to address upgrades required by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) focused on preparedness for extreme natural disasters such as earthquakes and tornados. In November 2012, Honeywell began comprehensive upgrades at a cost of more than $40 million to reinforce the plant. Operations were restarted in July 2013 after NRC approval.