Laser enrichment chosen for Paducah

28 November 2013

Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) will enter talks with the US Department of Energy after its proposal to build and operate a laser enrichment facility at shut down Paducah plant was selected. Off-specification inventory will be processed by Areva.

Depleted uranium hexafluoride cylinders (DoE)_460
Cylinders of depleted uranium hexafluoride (Image: DoE)

Earlier this year, the DoE invited interested parties to register their interest in the Paducah site in Kentucky, home to the world's last operating gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment plant which closed down after 60 years of operation. After evaluating the submissions it received, DoE has decided that GLE's offer represented the greatest benefit to the government and has now announced that it will open negotiations with GLE on the sale of the uranium hexafluoride inventory.

Uranium enrichment involves increasing the proportion of the fissile uranium-235 isotope relative to non-fissile uranium-238 for use in nuclear fuels. Laser enrichment uses a laser to preferentially excite the uranium-235 in gaseous uranium hexafluoride, making it easier to collect. The process is potentially more efficient than the gaseous centrifuge enrichment technology in commercial use today, which itself superseded energy-intensive gaseous diffusion enrichment plants.

The SILEX technology to be used in the proposed Paducah plant is licensed to GE-Hitachi-Cameco joint venture GLE by its developer, Silex Systems, whose CEO Michael Goldsworthy described the development as a "key turning point" for the commercialisation of the technology. GLE already has a licence to construct and operate a commercial uranium enrichment plant using the technology at Wilmington in North Carolina.

The Paducah facility would upgrade depleted uranium 'tails' left over from previous enrichment operations. These contain a lower proportion of uranium-235 than in naturally occurring uranium but can potentially be re-enriched for use in nuclear fuel. GLE's proposal to manage the inventory involves licensing, building and operating a new laser enrichment facility at Paducah, potentially using existing plant facilities, infrastructure and utilities which it would lease from DoE.

The US inventory of depleted uranium tails is estimated to be around 115,000 tonnes. According to Silex Systems, the Paducah processing plant could provide uranium equivalent to "one of the world's largest uranium mines operating for up to 40 years."

Commercial contract negotiations between DoE and GLE are expected to be completed in early 2014, after which GLE would need to apply for the necessary construction and operation licences for the facility from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

In the same announcement, the DoE said it would be entering negotiations with Areva to process off-specification uranium hexafluoride as blend stock for domestic nuclear fuel. This would be carried out using Areva's existing nuclear fuel fabrication facility in Richland, Washington.

Deputy energy secretary Daniel Poneman said that the GLE and Areva projects represented "an important next step" in planning for potential future uses and cleanup efforts at Paducah as well as reducing the costs to the taxpayer of the cleanup operation.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News