Defense and aerospace contractor Alliant Techsystems is about to go nuclear in a big way.

The Eden Prairie company will complete a centrifuge rotor-tube factory in West Virginia next month that will play a crucial role in delivering cheaper enriched uranium to the resurgent nuclear power industry.

Alliant's 125,000-square-foot plant will employ 120 people and produce 11,500 rotor tubes for U.S. Enrichment Corp. (USEC). Alliant's towering rotors, which are key components inside USEC's centrifuges, rotate to separate and concentrate desired uranium isotopes.

The resulting enriched uranium will be sold to nuclear power plants around the globe, USEC officials said.

Centrifuge technology was developed nearly 20 years ago but shelved in its infancy by the U.S. Department of Energy in favor of a laser-based technology that didn't pan out. Centrifuge technology made a comeback after 2001. It uses less electricity and operates at a fraction of the cost of the more common gas-diffusion enrichment methods.

"When USEC goes from the gaseous diffusion process to the gas centrifuge process it uses 95 percent less electricity to produce the same amount of enriched uranium. With today's energy costs you can see why this [technology] is very, very important," said Alliant Aerospace Structures Vice President Mark Messick.

"This centrifuge plant is going to be the only one that uses U.S. technology, so it's strategically important to America," Messick said.

Nuclear energy is a novel venture for the $4.2 billion Alliant Techsystems (ATK). The company began making tubes in 2006 for USEC's demonstration plant in Piketon, Ohio. ATK officials expect their initial $10 million pilot project to blossom into a full production contract worth about $250 million.

USEC will complete an adjacent commercial production plant next year to make 11,500 centrifuges -- each with an ATK rotor inside. Honeywell, Babcock & Wilcox in Virginia and Major Tool and Machine in Indiana will also supply that plant.

A "nuclear renaissance" is taking place in the United States, said Dave McIntyre, spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

"The main manifestation of it is that we have received nine applications for 15 new [nuclear] reactors since September. These are the first applications received in about the last 30 years," he said.

While there are 104 U.S. nuclear power reactors and 439 worldwide, USEC is one of only a handful of commercial companies to enrich the uranium used to fuel the reactors. It's also the latest to build a centrifuge plant in the United States, McIntyre said.

Louisiana Energy Services is building a similar plant in New Mexico and Areva Inc., based in France, is building one in Idaho, he said. General Electric, Hitachi and Canada-based Cameco are jointly building a uranium enrichment plant in North Carolina, but it will use a new laser technology, McIntyre said.

Composites experience helps

To make the leap from defense contracting to nuclear energy, ATK borrowed a page from its traditional missile- and rocketmaking business and applied it to the evolving science of nuclear energy.

ATK took the lightweight composites it uses to help make the Delta and Atlas rocket motors and parts for the Joint Strike Fighter jet, the Boeing 878 and Airbus A350 to make the centrifuge rotors for USEC.

USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said the company was drawn to ATK because of its experience in composites. "We are very proud to have them as one of our strategic suppliers," she said.

ATK rotor tubes are made of extremely strong, lightweight and heat-resistant carbon-epoxy composites. They're roughly 2 feet in diameter and 43 feet long. Each tube is encased inside a centrifuge and rotated at high speed to separate gaseous uranium into two types -- desired uranium-235 (U235) isotopes and undesired uranium-238 isotopes, Stuckle explained.

Cascades of centrifuges keep processing and separating the uranium gases, until the concentration of U-235 increases from 0.7 percent to 4 to 5 percent, Stuckle said.

To compare, a nuclear bomb requires a concentration closer to 95 percent and significantly more equipment, Stuckle said.

While uranium enrichment for energy is considered acceptable, the United States government remains skeptical that other nations' enrichment technologies are benign. In 2003, the Bush administration cited concerns over centrifuge rotor tubes getting into the hands of Saddam Hussein among its reasons for going to war in Iraq. The concerns proved to be unfounded.

USEC wants to set up low-level uranium enrichment programs for producing electricity, not military-grade uranium, Stuckle said. The 4 percent U-235 created at its new plant in Ohio is cooled into a solid form and transported to power plants.

Still, she noted that the company and its suppliers must employ extreme security measures. Phone conversations must take place in secure rooms and electronic communications are restricted. It can take two years for a worker to be cleared to work for USEC or a contractor on the project, she said. USEC and the NRC monitor the work for compliance.

The 'clear' in nuclear power

ATK's foray into nuclear energy comes at an opportune time. After accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island put nuclear power in the hot seat, the idea of nuclear's carbon-neutral energy production has found favor again amid worries about global warming.

As recently as 2004, the NRC had no plans to build new nuclear reactors. Today, energy companies are clamoring for 20-year license extensions and for permission to increase spent fuel storage or build new reactors. They will all need enriched uranium for fuel.

The NRC expects 23 license applications for 34 new U.S. reactors by 2010, said McIntyre, the agency's spokesman. According to USEC, the same trend is occurring globally, with 35 more nuclear plants under construction and more than 300 proposed.

The rising cost of natural gas, tighter emissions standards, fears of impending carbon caps for coal plants and new financial incentives created by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 are driving the companies' interest, McIntyre said.

"And there is the fact that the production of electricity with nuclear power does not create greenhouse gases," he added.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725