Printed on: October 04, 2012

Facility gets NRC license

By Zach Kyle
zkyle@postregister.com

Idaho Falls-based International Isotopes has cleared the final piece of red tape needed to build a first-of-its kind nuclear deconversion facility.

Company President and CEO Steve Laflin said securing a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was the last step in a four-year process to acquire all of the permits and licenses needed for the project.

"(This project is) truly unique," Laflin said. "We're the only commercial entity in the U.S. doing this. We're the only entity worldwide focusing not only on recycling depleted uranium but recovering fluorine."

The 40-acre deconversion facility, which will be built near Hobbs, N.M., will allow the company to strip fluorine from high volumes of depleted uranium, the radioactive byproduct of enriching uranium for nuclear fuel.

Fluorine is a valuable chemical used in pharmaceuticals, as well as software for cellphones and other high-tech gadgets.

Steve Herring is a fellow at Idaho National Laboratory who is familiar with both the chemical and regulatory sides of working with nuclear materials. Herring said the license will enable International Isotopes to glean a valuable commodity while making uranium safer to store.

"It's a major accomplishment for them to secure the license," Herring said. "They've developed a process that returns the uranium to a more stable state. It does not have pressure or have to be retained in a pressure-tight cylinder. This is a way to store the uranium so you can be sure it's not going to get out of the ground."

Laflin worked as a nuclear engineer at INL before leaving in 1996 to start a spin-off company that eventually became International Isotopes.

The company is traded publicly with stock valued at 20 cents per share. Its stock hit a five-year high of $1.07 in January 2008 but bottomed out at 10 cents twice in 2011.

Laflin said the new facility, which will employ 150, portends good things for stockholders.

"It's a totally new area for the company," Laflin said. "It will allow us to grow by a factor of 10 in a few years."

Company headquarters and its 25 full-time employees will remain in Idaho Falls, Laflin said. The company will continue using INL's Advanced Test Reactor to generate the cobalt that makes up the bulk of the company's business.

The next step for the project is securing the $115 million needed to start building the New Mexico facility, which Laflin hopes will begin in early 2013. Laflin said finding funding will be much easier with the permit and license ducks in a row.