BOISE — French nuclear services giant Areva SA no longer projects a date for building an Idaho uranium enrichment plant, aiming to avoid dashing expectations while its hunt for financing drags on.
Work on the $3 billion Eagle Rock enrichment plant was meant to start in 2011. That was delayed to 2012, then 2013 and 2014. Now, Areva says the facility remains a priority but it would be imprudent to give a groundbreaking date amid unresolved talks with financing partners.
The delays stacked up as optimism for nuclear power dimmed, at least short term. Areva announced interest in the Idaho project in 2008, long before the Japanese nuclear disaster at Fukushima in 2011 and the emergence of plentiful U.S. natural gas supplies that promise a stable, cheap power alternative. What's more, a rival nuclear fuel producer for power plants in New Mexico is expanding, while prices for enriched uranium have fallen.
Bob Poyser, who heads Areva's Idaho Falls office near the Eagle Rock site, said his company is content to say it still wants the plant, without publicizing just when. Five of Areva's eight Idaho employees have been redirected to other tasks.
"We're keeping them busy on other projects," Poyser said Thursday. "When this one does start up, they'll return."
Jeff Combs, an Atlanta-based nuclear fuels expert at The Ux Consulting Company, said he's optimistic about the long-term viability of the nuclear industry in the U.S.
But the near-term outlook is conspiring to keep companies like Areva cautious, he said.
"The main mover there has been Fukushima and the fallout from that," Combs said. "You just don't need as much enrichment supply now. When a lot of this was being looked at, you had the nuclear renaissance in full bloom.... It's just taken a couple of steps back for now."
Areva had predicted thousands of construction jobs and up to 700 permanent positions in Idaho Falls by 2014, the date the enrichment facility's centrifuges were supposed to be spinning.
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