US regulators have received the first part of an application to build a laser-based uranium enrichment plant in North Carolina.
The plant would represent a development of the Silex technology developed in Australia and licensed by GE-Hitachi. That firm founded a venture called Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), in which Canadian uranium producer Cameco subsequently took a 24% stake.
GE-Hitachi announced today that the environmental portion of a combined construction and operating license (COL) application had been submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The company said the NRC had approved the early submission on 13 January on grounds of greater efficiency. The licensing process is expected to take about 30 months, with the much of the time being devoted to the environmental report. The remainder of the COL is set for submission in June this year.
GLE has been preparing a test enrichment loop based on the Silex laser technology since mid-2008, with the intention of demonstrating the commercial feasibility of the technology and advancing the design of the necessary equipment, buildings and processes. "Major components have been designed and are in the process of being manufactured and delivered for installation," said GE-Hitachi.
GLE said it intends to use its learning from the test loop to make a decision this year on whether to build a full-scale plant, but the early submission of part of the COL indicates a great confidence in the project.
Should GLE go ahead with a full-scale laser enrichment plant, it would be sited alongside GE-Hitachi's headquarters at Wilmington in the US state of North Carolina. The capacity of the plant would be between 3.5 million and 6 million separative work units (SWU). It would be one of a handful of new enrichment facilities in the USA, but the only one in the world to use laser excitation to separate uranium-235 from the marginally heavier uranium-238. Other new facilities use centrifuges, while older facilities use a diffusion process.