GE-Hitachi (GEH) has selected Wilmington, North Carolina, as the site for a potential commercial uranium enrichment plant using the Silex laser isotope separation process technology. A nuclear fuel manufacturing plant already operates there.
General Electric (GE) and Australia's Silex Systems signed an exclusive commercialization and license agreement for the Silex (Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation) uranium enrichment technology in early 2006. The agreement, worth some $55 million to Silex in the pre-commercial phase, provided for a stepped approach to the deployment of the Silex technology and the potential construction of a test loop, pilot plant and a full-scale commercial enrichment facility. Under the agreement with GE, Silex will ultimately receive royalty payments based on revenues generated by commercial operations using the Silex technology.
GEH, parent company of Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), is constructing its laser enrichment "test loop" at the nuclear fuel manufacturing facility operated by Global Nuclear Fuel (GNF), a joint venture owned by GE, Hitachi and Toshiba, co-located at GEH's site in Wilmington. The GLE test loop is intended to confirm full-scale facility parameters required for the construction of a larger scale commercial facility.
Before moving ahead with full-scale production plans, GEH will first evaluate results of the testing and obtain a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build and operate the commercial plant. Commercial licensing activities are currently underway to support a projected start-up date of 2012. GEH's commercial GLE facility will have a target capacity of between 3.5 and 6 million separative work units (SWU) - the latter figure representing some 8.5% of predicted global demand in 2015.
GEH intends to make a final decision on the construction of the facility as early as the beginning of 2009. If constructed, the plant could take up some 80 hectares of the 525-hectare GEH headquarters site in Wilmington.
Tammy Orr, GLE's president and CEO, said: "This is a key milestone in GLE's development process. With the selection of the Wilmington site for a potential commercial facility, we can now move forward with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's licensing process."
Michael Goldsworthy, CEO of Silex Systems, commented: "We are very pleased with this decision. We are aware of the significant effort that has gone into this site selection decision, which further underscores the level of commitment that GEH is providing for the commercialization of this technology."
In October 2007, the two largest US nuclear utilities, Exelon and Entergy, signed non-binding letters of intent to contract for uranium enrichment services from GEH. The utilities may also provide GEH with facility licensing and public acceptance support if needed for development of the GLE plant. Both are long-time nuclear reactor technology and services customers of GEH and of GNF.
GLE/Silex's is the only remaining laser uranium enrichment process on the world stage. The technology involves vaporizing uranium hexafluoride (UF6) into a gaseous form and exposing it to a laser beam that preferentially excites the uranium-235 atoms, which enables separation of natural uranium into streams enriched and depleted in uranium-235. The process operation, while technically complex, is potentially more efficient than existing centrifuge enrichment technology.