NRC approves operation of GLE test loop

14 May 2008

An application by Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) for a licence amendment to operate a test loop for its laser uranium enrichment technology has been approved by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

GE-Hitachi (GEH), parent company of 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 headquarter site in Wilmington, North Carolina. At GEH's request, GNF applied to the NRC to amend its nuclear materials facility licence so that GLE can perform confirmation testing of the laser enrichment technology.

GEH intends to start operating the test loop in late 2008 in order to confirm full-scale facility parameters required for the construction of a commercial facility. GEH intends to make a final decision on the construction of the commercial facility as early as the beginning of 2009.

Before moving ahead with full-scale production plans, GEH will first evaluate results of the testing and obtain another license from the NRC to build and operate a new 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 recently announced that it had selected Wilmington as the site for a potential commercial uranium enrichment plant using laser isotope separation process technology.

Tammy Orr, GLE's president and CEO, said, "Thus far, the licensing process has progressed smoothly." She added, "We are working on a commercial facility licence for the Wilmington site for submittal later this year."

In early 2006, GE completed a technology licensing agreement for the laser isotope separation technology with technology developer Silex Systems of Australia. Under this agreement, GEH's GLE business has exclusive rights to commercially develop this third-generation uranium enrichment technology on a global basis.

Meanwhile, the NRC has organised a public meeting on 19 May to discuss an alert - the lowest level of emergency classification at nuclear fuel facilities - issued on 30 January at GNF's Wilmington facility. The alert was declared based on the potential for the introduction of moisture into a container holding uranium dioxide powder. Adding moisture to sufficient quantities of enriched uranium dioxide increases the possibility of a criticality event. However, the NRC said there had been no such event and no actual health and safety impact to workers, nearby residents or the environment.

An NRC inspection of the GNF plant to determine the source of the moisture identified four apparent violations. The apparent violations were in the areas of "maintaining double contingency control, emergency level declaration, approved procedures for maintenance activities, and approval by the criticality safety function of maintenance activities," NRC said.