Toshiba buying in to US enrichment to ease bottleneck?

Written by dkoplow Posted: 05/25/2010 10:25 AM EDT

In describing a decision by Toshiba to invest $100 million in the US Enrichment Corporation, the Financial Times writes:

The Japanese group said it would take a stake in New York-listed USEC, which has annual revenues of $2bn and supplies more than half of the US market with enriched uranium fuel.

The move highlights how the handful of companies that can make a nuclear reactor – including Toshiba of Japan, Areva of France and General Electric of the US – are scrambling to ease bottlenecks and control the complex nuclear supply chain.

A Toshiba executive says its customers are demanding it be present in all key parts of the supply chain.  There is no mention here of nuclear waste management, which I guess is not part of the "real" nuclear supply chain since the firms tend to leave it to governments to deal with in nearly every country in the world. 

While USEC has significant market share in the US, it's technology is old and without replacement the firm isn't likely to remain viable.  Also missing from the article is the strong possibility that the large capacity increases announced for enrichment just within in the US will result in a glut of enrichment services rather than a bottleneck. 

It wouldn't be the first time.  In the early 1980s, USEC was owned by the federal government and called the Uranium Enrichment Enterprise (UEE).  Anticipating high demand for enrichment, UEE entered into take-or-pay power contracts with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).  UEE did not secure the expected boost in demand with actual matching contracts with its utility customers.  When the poor economics of nuclear led to a wave of plant cancellations, UEE still had to pay nearly $2 billion in contracts to TVA for power it no longer needed.  It is a lesson Toshiba might want to keep in mind.