Laser enrichment one step closer as licence issued

26 September 2012

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has issued the first ever construction and operation licence for a full scale laser enrichment facility – opening the door to commercialisation of this new nuclear technology.

The licence received yesterday allows GE-Hitachi (GEH) subsidiary Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) to build a plant capable of producing six million separative work units annually, and to enrich uranium up to 8% uranium-235 by weight. It would be constructed in Wilmington North Carolina at the site of GEH's existing fuel fabrication plant, although the company has yet to indicate whether or not they will proceed with construction. A spokesperson informed World Nuclear News that any such decision will probably occur over the next several months and be determined by market and economic considerations.

Enrichment matters

There are currently two major kinds of enrichment used in the world today, by diffusion and centrifuge, both of which rely upon the difference in mass of uranium-235 compared to uranium-238 to separate and collect the valuable fissile element. Enrichment accounts for about half the costs of delivered nuclear fuel and about 5% of the cost of nuclear generated electricity.

Laser enrichment - such as that developed by GLE - uses a different approach. Lasers selectively ionize gas molecules containing uranium-235 which are then collected on charged plates. Facilities required for this process are expected to be much smaller than for conventional enrichment, require far less energy to run and be theoretically capable of separating out a much higher ratio of uranium-235.

The technology has been a long time in development. Work on laser isotope separation originally began in the 1970s but never progressed past the research stage until now. GE became a driving force in the technology's progress when it entered into partnership with Australia's Silex Systems in 2006 and took over the development of their SILEX laser system – rebranding it as GLE in the process. The company was later spun off and is now oned jointly by GE (51%), Hitachi (25%) and Cameco (24%).

As the technical feasibility of the SILEX process was demonstrated GE described it as a "game changing technology" and sought to address safety and proliferation concerns. GLE submitted its licence application to the regulator in January 2009. Receiving it removes the last regulatory hurdle to the development of a commercial facility. The NRC is convinced that the proposed Wilmington facility "would not pose undue risk to the health and safety or workers or the public."

GLE mentions that it has also worked closely with both the US Department of State and Department of Energy as well as independent proliferation experts to make sure their technology meets existing safeguard regulations.

"Receiving our NRC licence is a tremendous accomplishment and strong testament to everyone involved in this project," said Chris Monetta, GLE's president and CEO. "The technology we've developed could be one of the keys to the nation's long-term energy security. At a minimum, it could provide a steady supply of uranium enriched right here in the USA to the country's nuclear reactors."

Silex Systems CEO Michael Goldsworthy commented, "This is a seminal moment in the history of the nuclear industry…  After more than 40 years of international research and billions of dollars invested by various governments and companies around the world in a race to achieve laser uranium enrichment, Silex and GLE are very proud to be the only successor in this incredibly challenging technological endeavour. I would like to thank and congratulate the entire combined Silex-GLE team on this fantastic achievement."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News