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Awards 2024

Decarbonising nuclear fuel

Enrichment company Urenco has published its net zero strategy setting out its very ambitious plans for Scope 1,2 and 3 emissions reductions. Chris Pye tells NEI about the challenges and early successes in its bid to reduce emissions.

Above: Martijn Kolkman, Net Zero manager for Almelo with a solar PV installation at the site

In the run up to COP 28, Urenco published its first net zero transition plan revealing how it intends to reduce its carbon emissions. Under previously announced plans, Urenco has set out its ambition to cut Scope 1 and 2 emissions to zero by 2030 and by 2040 for its overall business.

Achieving that in less than two decades is a daunting task and the company has now delivered a detailed plan that sets out where Urenco’s carbon emissions are in its business and how it is taking action to reduce them.

With its commitment to reducing emissions in its direct operations by 2030, it plans absolute reductions in carbon emissions of 90% by 2030 and a further 30% reduction in its scope 3 emissions by the same date. Urenco says it will also neutralise any residual scope 1 and 2 emissions, up to a maximum of 10%, when measured against a 2019 baseline.

The company has already recruited net zero leads at all sites and is focusing on planning and has set up working groups to tackle priority emissions areas.

Chris Pye, NetZero programme manager at Urenco, whose role covers the whole group with responsibilities for developing and executing the Net Zero programme, explained how the strategy will be executed to NEI: “This involves coordination across all four of the operating sites that Urenco has and close coordination and liaison with our dedicated NetZero managers that we have for each of our sites. That is really key to help drive through some of the ambitious changes that we’re trying to make across our plants and sites.”

Pye is keen to emphasis the efforts the company is already expending to meet its net zero ambitions since the plan was first announced in 2022.

“There’s been some real progress made to focus on reducing and driving down our direct operational emissions at our sites. We’ve identified the key areas of emissions that we’ve got at our sites from a scope one perspective, recognising the challenges this has at the industrial operating sites,” he says, adding: “To make sure that we can make an effective change on these emissions we’ve developed an approach to identify and develop suitable Net Zero solutions. What this means at the moment is that we’ve utilised and mobilised a lot of internal resources.”

Urenco has gathered subject matter experts who have a detailed understanding of how the various operating sites work. Those experts have been split into three working groups to focus on specific emission areas.

Pye continues: “The working groups focus on refrigeration systems, on the use of natural gas across our whole group and also the fact that we rely on diesel fuel sources for power backup supplies to make sure that our sites can operate throughout the 24-hour operations that we have. This has mobilised around 40 individuals across the business from all sites and disciplines and the working groups are currently in a six-month phase to develop feasibility studies to identify what we need to go after, what we can go after and what the best priority of actions is to actually implement some physical changes so that our plants to align with the targets. That’s a real big mobilisation of resources. It’s also a big resource of different expertise within the business.”

The initial feasibility studies were completed at the end of November 2023 ahead of the strategy launch. They will now be used to direct Urenco as to how the plant designs can be adapted and modified to reduce emissions towards the 2030 near-term target. Urenco says it will also produce annual updates of the plan going forward.

Getting started on emissions reduction

Given part of the initial phase of the Net Zero strategy is identifying and evaluating the financial impact of the scope 1 decarbonisation programme, evaluating self-generation and contractual opportunities at all sites for Scope 2 emissions and developing a roadmap for Scope 3, Urenco has turned to science-based targeting for its emissions reduction programme.

Pye says: “The real driver is not only our net zero targets. We’ve got in existence the commitment to be net zero by 2040 but earlier, in January 2023, we submitted our SBTI [Science Based Targets initiative] for validation. We started that process for enhancing the credibility of our net zero programme, ensuring that we’re following the science-based approach that we’ve always mentioned and stated that we want to follow and get to that ratification that our targets are ambitious and align with the global benchmarks.”

Urenco’s SBTi validation process commenced in January and is in progress, Pye added.

Nonetheless, Urenco was pushing ahead with physical measures to reduce emissions even before its strategy document had been finalised.

“The work to identify where we can decarbonise within scope one and some of the actions have actually been going on throughout this process,” says Pye. He continues: “One of the exciting aspects is our operating site in the Netherlands. They’re keenly investigating the potential for heat networking using the heat that’s generated through our process and the output of the enrichment process in terms of thermal heat. They’re investigating the potential to use that as a product for the local industrial cluster around the Almelo site so the other users that need heat can use it and also it prevents us having a waste heat stream and making the use of energy more circular within the operation of the Almelo site.”

As part of developing the proof of concept for such a heat output stream, one of the buildings at the Almelo site has eliminated the need for natural gas, which had been used as part of a process to humidify the air stream for the building.

“Now we’re looking to get partnerships with the local businesses around Almelo to understand the demand that we have for this potential collaboration. It’s not high-grade heat at lower than 100 degrees normally but Urenco have already had interest from the local industries around Almelo which see it as useful to them for their processes,” adds Pye.

Tackling Scope 2 emissions

Urenco also been advancing plans on Scope 2 reductions, for instance adding new solar capacity to its production sites. “From a scope two perspective, the Almelo solar installation is now complete and is generating electricity. We’ve now also completed the installation of solar car ports to complement the electricity consumption at Almelo”. Pye notes that while this latter installation was needed to shelter cars from the weather, it also has a very visual impact reinforcing company-wide engagement with employees and visitors. Pye continues: “We are progressing solar installations at all of the operating sites as one of our targets that is very much a complementary element to our Scope 2 decarbonisation. It is one that we’re pursuing where we can with different phases for different sites, planning processes are going through for the UK sites, and feasibility studies for the US sites and German sites as well.”

The Almelo site now has an installed capacity that could generate up to 2% of its total annual demand with a 15% peak demand ability.

“We’re looking in the 3-4 MW capacity range for the Dutch sites. The UK site, we have more potential there that can offer up to 50%, 60% of peak demand and potentially up to about 7% of annual consumption. The German site is somewhere in between the two. Again, we’re looking at feasibility, but more towards the Dutch end of capacity so it’ll be more like a 4% or 5% of total annual demand. The US has great potential. There’s a lot of land mass there and the solar irradiance is much better in New Mexico than it is in northern Europe. That is a bit more undefined. We’re looking at what is really feasible to do with the land we’ve got there as well.”

However, Pye fully recognises that such projects are not going to be able to fully meet Urenco’s 2030 targets: “We see them as very ambitious. They’re a 90% reduction in our Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2030 and fully aligned with our long-term aspirations of being a net zero organisation and bringing that forward as much as we can and as fast as we can. To complement the Scope 2 actions, we’re fully investigating the grid availability of low-carbon contracts for all of our operating sites and, again, different feasibility levels for each of those countries to make sure that we have something that’s robust, but also making sure that we actually have decarbonised electricity that’s credible.”

Even so, meeting even 5% of total demand from solar represents a substantial carbon saving. Pye explains: “Because we’re a high electricity user when we look at it from our overall percentages it looks like low-single figures but when you extrapolate that out it makes a big difference. We’re really keen to make sure that, where we can, we utilise self-generation to reduce the demand that we have on the grid, because we recognise that that then frees up more low-carbon electricity,” he says.

Urenco is also looking at more self-supply options such as SMRs. As Pye explains: “Nothing’s off the table at the moment. The important thing is we’re looking at all feasible options that we could utilise as an organisation and SMRs are something that we definitely are very interested in.”

Urenco recognises there’s no single solution to deliver on its net zero aspirations and embracing conventional renewables as well as nuclear capacity feeding into a low-carbon electricity mix. “A balanced grid system has to have contributions from renewable wind and solar, but also nuclear with that stable base load. That’s going to help us get there as well, working together in tandem,” observes Pye.

Beyond self-supply from whatever sources are available and feasible, Urenco is also looking at contracting low- carbon energy supplies looking to cover all of electricity consumption from low-carbon sources.

“We’ve got a 90% target to reduce our Scope 1 & 2 emissions by 2030. However, to get there, we need to decarbonize all of our Scope 2 electricity supply and have complete coverage with low-carbon contracts complemented with self-generation where appropriate. We obviously have always got the 2030 as our goal but the timing varies depending on the country and the availability of contracts,” says Pye, adding: “We’ve got that arrangement in place on one of our four sites. We’re looking realistically more towards the tail end of the decade to get the sites fully switched over. However, there are opportunities to start that process earlier and it’s not going to be something that we switch overnight. We’re looking at reducing the carbon intensity through those opportunities. It really depends on the country and the availability of low-carbon contracts at the moment.”

Indeed, the Capenhurst, UK, site is already supplied through a contract that is essentially zero carbon as it is backed by nuclear electricity from the UK nuclear fleet.

Tuning in to the supply chain

Alongside solar and contracting low-carbon energy supplies, Urenco is also looking at where savings can be made in its energy use too. Over time, for example, embedding further energy efficiency with its centrifuge technology will reduce their consumption even while sustaining production capacity or even increasing it.

“It’s something that we’re very conscious to make sure that we improve, not only in terms of reliability from an asset perspective, but making sure that we embed efficiency into our processes. This is where net zero is a real opportunity, because it gives this perspective of decarbonisation and improving efficiency as a driver to business as well. We’ve always recognised that is important as a business priority so every opportunity we have to improve efficiency, we’re looking at,” says Pye.

Urenco also highlights its engagement with its supply chain in a bid to address its Scope 3 emissions too and the company is already engaging with more than 80% of their highest emitting suppliers through the EcoVadis programme. Pye explains: “We’re busily working on our Scope 3 supply chain emissions. Last year we made a lot of progress where we’ve updated the way that we engage with our suppliers and with EcoVadis and we’re now using that to springboard and upskill our procurement teams to be able to engage with our supply chain and both discuss carbon and how we can measure and improve their carbon intensities going forward. We recognise that this is a collaborative space that we really need to push forward in. We’re developing techniques to make sure that we can actually decarbonise that in the coming months and years as well.”

Pye emphasises not only how keen the company is to engage with the supply chain both in traditional procurement aspects, but also from the nuclear fuel cycle as well, and the positive response from the industry: “Early on, what we’ve seen is through this engagement is that a lot of our suppliers in the nuclear fuel cycle are keen to engage and keen to talk about carbon. We’re really proud of that effort and the buy-in that we’ve had from the supply chain gives us confidence going forward because the reach-out has given us an indication of the level of ambition that our suppliers have in terms of targets as well. Also, we share our experiences. We help our supply chain to decarbonise and in turn that helps us to decarbonise,” he says.

Indeed, Pye is hugely positive about decarbonisation, even for sectors seen as traditionally challenging: “If we look at mining, I don’t see it as an area that can’t decarbonise. Can they decarbonise at the rates that other industries can? That’s the potential question mark that we need to look at and see where we can go but there’s been a lot of positivity from the supply chain, which has given us a lot of enthusiasm to push forward. There’s a lot of opportunity because it’s a new area for exploring decarbonisation.”

Looking ahead, Pye is optimistic that Urenco’s own efforts will inspire change elsewhere too: “We’re confident that we’re still highly ambitious in the sector and that our approaches hopefully will drive change throughout the supply chain.”

With an ambitious timeframe of just six years to a 90% reduction, Urenco is certainly setting the bar high, but having achieved a 26% reduction in the four years since its 2019 baseline, the company is evidently showing change for the better is possible.