IDAHO FALLS — Areva has yet to announce a financial partner to help build its proposed gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant near Idaho Falls, raising the potential that construction on the $3 billion project will be delayed until 2014.
By then, the French-based company said Friday, its balance sheet will have recovered sufficiently to tackle the nuclear fuel facility independently.
Initially, Areva hoped to build in 2011, but deep losses scuttled those plans. The company began searching for a partner and pushed back building until 2013.
Spokesman Mike French said Friday that Areva continues to seek an investor to help with the project. If nobody suitable is found or steps forward, however, that would push construction back months more.
Since the facility's first phase will take about 31/2 years to complete, it wouldn't be done until least mid-2017, in that event.
Even so, Areva remains firmly committed to the Idaho Falls project, is continuing engineering work and is confident signed contracts with U.S. utilities for a "significant" share of the plant's projected enriched uranium output are intact, French said.
"We've worked with our utility customers and negotiated agreements that satisfy what their needs are, based on our strategy with moving this project forward," he said, from the company's U.S. offices in Bethesda, Md. "They are comfortable."
The French state-controlled nuclear giant lost more than $3 billion in 2011, a year plagued by management changes, a soured uranium mining venture and jitters following the earthquake and tsunami that caused a nuclear disaster in Japan.
Given Areva's shortfall and existing financial commitments including to complete a new uranium enrichment plant in France, it decided in January it didn't have the capital to stick to its initial Idaho Falls construction schedule.
That meant workers from URS Nuclear, the company due to help build the plant, had to be diverted outside of Idaho, including a streetcar project in Atlanta.
Areva has already secured a federal license to build the plant and has received a $2 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy, which French said wouldn't be endangered by pushing the project back until 2014.
The Idaho Falls region is banking on thousands of construction jobs from the project to help bolster an economy that's already anchored by the Idaho National Laboratory nuclear energy research station
There would be another 700 permanent positions, once operations commence.
State economic development officials said they've been kept abreast of Areva's construction projections.
Even if building is delayed again at the site on former agricultural land in the desert west of Idaho Falls, Department of Commerce Director Jeffery Sayer says that doesn't give him pause about prospects of the plant being completed.
"That's the encouraging part, we're hearing strong indicators they want to move forward, it's just a matter of financing," Sayer said. "It's a matter of time and money."
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