The war in Ukraine has definitely not finished upsetting the geopolitics of energy. And for good reason, it is not just Russian gas deliveries that risk dwindling in Europe: enriched uranium, the fuel necessary for the operation of nuclear power plants, is also being embroiled in the major conflict that is shaking the Old Continent.

Because on this critical segment, Russia still represents almost a third of Western supplies. Which are therefore exposed to a possible breach of contracts by Moscow, pushing some of them, especially across the Atlantic, to break away from it as quickly as possible.

New market perspectives

What open new markets to the French company Orano (ex-Areva), specialized in the management of nuclear fuels. Competitor of the Russian Rosatom on uranium enrichment, the tricolor company intends to seize the opportunity to increase its production capacity in this area by 30%, on its site in Tricastin (Drôme). The objective: to supply from 2028 the electricians in search of a new supplier before they eventually turn to the other large company exporting enriched uranium, the Anglo-German-Dutch Urenco, which is also working on a possible extension program.

From February 1 to April 9, everyone will therefore be called upon to give their opinion on the project to extend the enrichment capacities at Tricastin, within the framework of the National Commission for Public Debate, before a decision to launch ” ideally taken in the year “, we explain at Orano. It will then be a question of reproducing identically part of the current plant inaugurated in 2011, where natural uranium in gaseous form, not suitable for use in power plants, is centrifuged in order to increase its content. in U235, the isotope allowing the fission process in nuclear reactors. And this, for a total cost estimated between 1.3 and 1.7 billion euros.

The space dedicated to the construction of the enrichment capacity extension has already been chosen by Orano, as an extension of its current plant.

Capture US customers

The investment is certainly colossal, but if we are to believe Orano, the game is worth the effort. Because the tricolor company could thus capture nearly half of the new Western demand for enriched uranium linked to the reduction in the share of the Russian market, one explains in its ranks. This is indeed estimated between 5 and 8 million separation work units (SWU) per year », or the equivalent of 50 to 90 million homes supplied with electricity. However, the extension of the Tricastin plant would allow Orano to increase its annual production of enriched uranium by 3.5 million SWUs from the end of the decade, from 7.5 million today ( 12% of the world market) to 11 million SWU.

And in this well-rehearsed strategy, the company counts first on the thirst for nuclear fuels of American electricians. Because unlike the European Union, Washington has decided to quickly limit its exposure to Rosatom: under the Russian Suspension Act, Russian imports of this precious fuel should not exceed 15% by 2030, against 28% in 2021 (approximately 4 million SWU). The United States even intends to go even further, since discussions are underway to engrave in stone an ambitious new objective of 0% Russian imports by 2025. “ At this stage, our discussions with American customers are the most advanced. “, we slip at Orano.

Nuclear: Russia threatens to stop selling its enriched uranium to the United States

Especially since other countries could follow, by deciding “to put an end to it by sanctions or import restrictions “, we add within the company. Even if this were not the case, Russia risks ” decide itself to restrict its exports as for gas “, she also underlines. Its message is clear: in view of the context, the extension would make it possible to avoid possible ” nuclear fuel shortages “, harmful to the ” security of supply ».

France depends on Russia to recycle reprocessed uranium

Nevertheless, Orano does not intend, for the moment, to take the place of Rosatom on another aspect of fuel management: the recycling of reprocessed uranium (URT). Unlike upstream enrichment, which consists of chemically transforming natural rock in order to manufacture nuclear fuel, the recycling of URT affects the downstream part of the cycle. This is in fact the management of spent fuel, so that it can be reused after it has passed through the reactor.

However, today, neither France nor any other Western European country has the industrial tool necessary to recycle uranium from spent fuel for the first time in EDF’s nuclear power plants. The electrician has thus always appealed to Russia for this industrial process and the French electrician continues to trade with Tenex, the subsidiary of Rosatom. The fruit of this partnership materialized in France on November 29, with thea delivery in France of the first cargo of enriched reprocessed uranium in Russia. And the possible extension of the Tricastin enrichment plant will not change anything: ” There will be no modules to enrich the URT “, we confirm at Orano.

Yet the company claims to be ” able to do it “, on the condition of building a dedicated unit. In its current enrichment plant, two of the 14 modules were built to accommodate URT. But the conversion of it, the preliminary step which aims to purify and transform it before its enrichment, was stopped in 2008, for lack of sufficient contract.

« With the financial crisis, the price of natural uranium fell, so much so that electricians preferred to source from the mines rather than recycle the fuel already used. “, we explain at Orano.

However, in view of the evolution of the prices and the limits of the storage of spent fuels, the capacities of which are approaching saturation, the strategy has changed: at EDF, the share of recycled uranium in the coming years should increase, to cover 25% of needs. It remains to be seen whether the contracts in question will go to Orano, ready to build new industrial tools, or will remain linked to Russia despite the geopolitical context.

Nuclear: a first in 10 years, uranium recycled in Russia arrives in France for EDF