RICHLAND — Bill Bazemore and Don Pederson began working at Areva 37 years ago in the nuclear fuel manufacturing company’s chemical processing unit.

Nearly four decades later, the pair still share similar responsibilities — now in Areva’s maintenance department where they control air flow, ventilation and heating.

“It’s been a good place to work,” Bazemore said. “I think the biggest thing is the people here. There’s a lot of knowledge.”

The two spoke Thursday at Areva’s Richland facility after company officials gave a rare tour of the plant that manufactures, packages and ships nuclear fuel.

Areva officials opened their doors Thursday in celebration of the facility’s 40 years of operating in Richland. After being issued a license by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to continue its operations for another 40 years, Areva officials had reason to celebrate.

Plant Manager Chuck Perkins said most license renewals don’t surpass 20 years. Areva’s 40-year license was heralded as “unprecedented.” Areva began the renewal process in October 2006 and was awarded the new license April 24.

Opened in 1969 as the Jersey Nuclear Company, the facility was composed of just a handful of buildings.

After 40 years and several name changes — Exxon, Siemens, FramatomANP and now Areva — the facility employs more than 700 people and spans 400,000 square feet, where miles of pipe and tubing snake across nondescript, often-concrete buildings that house millions of dollars of equipment, uranium and electronics. Outside one building sat a short row of tarnished drums, each about the size of a home’s water heater sitting on its side.

“That’s starting material,” Perkins said, pointing to the drums, which, he said, were worth about $6 million apiece. “It’s almost like a Jell-O.”

Just beyond the drums is the company’s dry-conversion process facility, which converts feed uranium hexaFLUORIDE gas into a powder. The powder is later shaped into pellets that are loaded into fuel rods, which, once bundled, power nuclear reactors.

Perkins said the dry-conversion process facility, operating since 1997, represents one of the plant’s most important technological innovations.

“We didn’t have to use the lagoons anymore,” he said, referring to the massive bodies of water that would partially evaporate and allow uranium to concentrate for extraction.

“They were very much less efficient,” he said.

The energy produced by Areva’s dry-conversion process in one hour is the equivalent generated by close to 20,000 tons of coal, Perkins said.

In another effort to expand efficiency, Perkins said the Areva facility is building a super-critical carbon dioxide facility that’ll allow the company to extract uranium from the ashes of incinerated material, including paper towels, clothing and wood. The facility should be running by the year’s end, Perkins said.