Areva continues to invest in its Richland manufacturing plant

The Areva NP plant in Richland has been investing an average of $7 million a year into its nuclear fuel manufacturing company for the last decade.

It’s a trend that appears to be continuing.

In the past four months, the nuclear fuel manufacturing plant has announced:

  • Plans to build a new $12 million scrap uranium recovery facility.
  • The addition of $560 million in fuel contracts for four different nuclear energy facilities.
  • Plans to begin developing advanced nuclear fuel assemblies to allow operators more time to respond in emergencies.

Ron Land, manager of the Richland plant, might agree that the company is on a roll, but he has another opinion.

“Our philosophy is to invest in the future,” he said. “We’ve not stopped investing. We continue to invest.”

Areva supplies fuel and fuel-related products for commercial pressurized water reactors and boiling water reactors. Last year it manufactured more than 2,300 fuel assemblies and more than 92 million fuel pellets.

Areva bought the current Richland facility in 2001. The plant has been at its Horn Rapids Road location for 45 years, but Land said Areva has upgraded the entire plant in stages since 2001. It’s among the biggest manufacturers in the Tri-Cities.

“We’ve been upgrading our facility for the last 15 years,” he said.

Much of it is automated.

The new building, which will be 11,000 square feet, will be used to purify previously contaminated uranium materials. That will allow the uranium, once stripped of contaminants, to be used again.

“This new process will purify uranium,” Land said. “We think it’s the greenest site in the world. We keep it from being contaminated and it’s used again. And we can offer this service to the world.”

Land said operations in the new building won’t start for a few years.

“The new building is going up this year,” he said. “Next year all of the electricity hookups and infrastructure will go in. By the middle of 2019, operations should begin.”

Areva’s new contracts – announced in late June – are the result of a successful bidding process that began a few years ago, and while they are for three fuel contracts, they are also for four facilities.

That work won’t begin until 2020, but all fuel assemblies for the contracts will be fabricated at the Richland plant.

“A typical fuel contract lasts five to 10 years,” Land said.

He said that it doesn’t necessarily mean the new deals will create new jobs. This can vary from workflow and seasons.

But the contracts should establish a steady workflow for years to come for the roughly 550 employees who work at the Richland plant.

“Our backlog is strong,” Land said.

Meanwhile, Areva is still bidding for other upcoming contracts, Land said.

“We’re always looking to expand our portfolio of customers,” he said.

Areva announced plans last month to load advanced fuel assemblies developed through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Enhanced Accident Tolerant Fuel program in Unit 2 at Georgia’s Vogtle Electric Generating Plant. That loading is scheduled for the spring 2019.

The program comes about in reaction to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

The Richland team will load four advanced lead test assemblies, which feature chromia additions to the fuel pellets and a chromium coating to the fuel rod cladding.

“The chromia-doped fuel pellets have a higher density and help reduce fission gas release in the event that the reactor loses cooling,” according to a company news release.

Had the operators had this type of fuel available to them at Fukushima, it could have given them more time to react and possibly avert a disaster, officials said.

Areva said it will begin manufacturing the chromia-doped fuel pellets in Richland later this year.

“This is an accident-tolerant fuel,” Land said.

That’s another part of the Areva mission: finding new products that make improvements in the nuclear energy industry.

“We’re just coming out with the next-generation products,” Land said. “We’re a global company, and we do global research and development. We’re in this for the long haul.”

Land stressed that Areva believes in nuclear energy, and it needs to be a leader in that industry.

“You don’t ensure success by being a follower,” he said.

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