EUNICE, N.M. — While the only American-owned company that enriches uranium prepares for bankruptcy, its competitor is zooming ahead with construction of what it describes as a cluster of far more economical and efficient new centrifuges.
Urenco, a German-Dutch-British consortium that began producing here in 2010, is on its way to doubling its size, and is apparently competing successfully even as the market for its product shrinks because of reactor shutdowns in Japan and elsewhere after the Fukushima Daiichi accident three years ago. At the same time, the American company, USEC, continues to ask for a $2 billion loan guarantee from Washington as it tries to prove, despite the impending bankruptcy, that its American Centrifuge project is close to commercial operation.
The end result may be that uranium enrichment, which was pioneered by the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to develop the atomic bomb, may become primarily a European and Russian technology.
“The competitors are not standing still,” said Ruthanne Neely, senior vice president at UcX, a nuclear fuel consulting company.
Enrichment plants sort two types of uranium that occur in nature: uranium 235, which splits easily in reactors and bombs, and uranium 238, which does not. In nature, one uranium atom in 140 is uranium 235, but most reactors require a level of one in 33 to one in 20. Iran has used centrifuges to enrich uranium to one part in 20. At a little more than 9 uranium 235 parts in 10, the uranium is bomb fuel.
The Manhattan Project, and later the Atomic Energy Commission, mixed the uranium with fluorine to create a gas. The gas, uranium hexafluoride, was forced through a barrier that allowed one form to pass more easily than the other, a process called gaseous diffusion. Government-owned gaseous diffusion plants — eventually inherited by USEC — began by making weapons but later provided enrichment services for uranium owned by electric utilities with power plants. The last of those enrichment plants shut last year.
But Urenco and others put the gas into centrifuges. That technology has spread worldwide, including to Pakistan, which made nuclear bombs using centrifuges based on Urenco designs, stolen from the company by A. Q. Kahn, a Pakistani metallurgist. The process uses about 95 percent less electricity than gaseous diffusion.
Today the technology of enrichment is an odd mixture of secrecy and openness. In a hall filled with centrifuges at the Urenco facility here in the desert of eastern New Mexico, a white plastic sheet was stretched out in front of the piping at the top of the devices, so that a visitor could not see how they were linked together. A red line painted on the floor marked where visitors could stand, so they could not see the piping. The restrictions were required by the federal government, an official explained, so that a would-be bomb maker could not learn how to link the centrifuges together.
But in a hallway outside a conference room in the office area of the plant, a poster-size full color photo of the piping was openly displayed. That photo was taken at a twin plant in the Netherlands, company officials said, and was not covered by American secrecy rules.
Similarly, officials will talk about their level of production, which the industry measures in “separative work units,” or SWUs (pronounced “swooze”), but they will not say how many centrifuges are needed to produce that work. Power consumption of any given centrifuge is “less than a standard household light bulb,” said Jay Laughlin, the head of operations, somewhat vaguely.
Another secret is the speed at which the centrifuges spin, although when a visitor was led through a hall filled with a forest of tubes, Mr. Laughlin, referring to their collective whine, said, “If you had perfect pitch, you’d know how fast they were spinning.” A spokesman for USEC said that when a radio reporter toured its demonstration centrifuge array, in Piketon, Ohio, the reporter was forbidden to record the sound, for the same reason.
The exterior walls of the centrifuges are aluminum tubes, recalling events from more than a decade ago, when Saddam Hussein’s import of such tubes into Iraq led the Bush administration to assert that he was developing nuclear weapons.
Urenco’s newest centrifuges are larger and spin faster, and each produces more SWUs than the old ones, so construction cost and electricity consumption are each down about 25 to 30 percent, Mr. Laughlin said.
The tubes here have sandbags on top, to dampen vibration, and clear plastic hoses filled with water running down the sides to help equalize temperatures. They are intended to run for years, maintenance-free. Urenco describes the centrifuges as simple, but they have a complication: They are extremely difficult to shut off and then restart, so as a result, Urenco says it does not build them unless it has presold their production.
“Our philosophy is ‘Sell it, finance it, build it,’ ” said Melissa Mann, president of Urenco’s American subsidiary.
USEC had expected to have its own centrifuges running by now, and presold their production. Now it is meeting that commitment using an inventory of SWUs from its now-defunct gaseous diffusion plants. It can also buy some SWUs from Tenex, a Russian export company, a spokesman said.
Although USEC has benefited from a desire by nuclear utilities to nurture another competitor in the marketplace, market analysts say it still has to persuade those companies to stick with it as it sells them uranium enriched in Russia or in old gaseous diffusion plants. For USEC to win a loan guarantee, it will need to present the Energy Department with signed contracts for purchase of the production of the new centrifuges.
So far, the department has repeatedly turned down USEC’s loan guarantee applications and told USEC to come back when the work was further along.
The budget deal in Congress earlier this month, however, provided $62 million from the nuclear weapons budget for work on USEC’s American Centrifuge project because the centrifuges could make fuel for a reactor that would produce a weapons material, tritium. Congress also provided another $56 million to the Energy Department that could be transferred to USEC later. USEC’s centrifuge would be substantially more productive than Urenco’s latest model, said a USEC spokesman, Paul E. Jacobson.
“After years of technological enhancement, the Urenco machine is reaching the end of its development maturity in terms of efficiencies and cost,” he said in an email. “In contrast, the American Centrifuge machine is in the early stages of its technological development, value engineering and cost efficiencies.”
But first the company has to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Energy Department that its machines will run nearly flawlessly for years. And if it gets the $2 billion loan guarantee, it will still have to raise approximately another $2 billion to build the project.
A version of this article appears in print on January 28, 2014, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Company Struggles to Keep U.S. in the Uranium Enrichment Game.