Environmental OK for laser enrichment plant

01 March 2012

There are no major environmental reasons why a uranium enrichment facility based on laser technology should not be constructed by Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) in Wilmington, North Carolina, the US nuclear regulator has concluded. A decision on whether to issue a licence for the plant is expected later this year.

GLE - a venture launched by GE-Hitachi and in which Cameco has since taken a stake - submitted the environmental portion of a combined construction and operating licence (COL) application for the facility to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in January 2009. The remainder of the COL application was submitted in June 2009.

The NRC has now issued its final technical Safety Evaluation Report (SER) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed plant. The SER evaluated the potential adverse impacts on the facility's operation on worker and public health and safety under normal and accident conditions. The review also considered GLE's programs for the physical protection of special nuclear material and classified matter; material control and accounting; and the management organization, administrative programs, and financial qualifications of GLE to ensure safe design and operation of the facility. The SER contains the NRC's conclusion that GLE descriptions, specifications and analyses provide an adequate basis for safety and safeguards of facility operations and that operation of the plant would not pose an undue risk to worker and public health and safety.

The final EIS on the GLE facility considered potential impacts of preconstruction activities (such as ground clearance and preparation), construction, operation and eventual decommissioning of the proposed plant. The EIS contains the NRC's conclusion that the project wouild have "small to medium impacts on the local environment, primarily during preconstruction activities."

The GLE plant would use a laser-based process to enrich uranium up to 8% uranium-235 by weight (although nuclear power reactors normally require 3%-5% enriched uranium), with an initial planned maximum target production of six million separative work units (SWU) per year. GLE could begin preconstruction activities at GE's Wilmington site prior to the NRC licensing decision later this year. If the licence is approved, GLE expects actual plant construction to begin in 2012 and to continue through to 2020. Production could begin in 2014 and peak in 2020. If granted, the licence would be valid until 2052.

In 2006, GE-Hitachi acquired the exclusive rights to develop and commercialize the Silex uranium enrichment technology globally through a licence from Australia's Silex Systems Ltd. GLE began operations of a test loop facility in July 2009 at its facilities in Wilmington, designed to demonstrate the commercial feasibility of the technology.

Silex CEO Michael Goldsworthy said the SER and EIS represent a "significant milestone towards obtaining an operating licence for the commercial enrichment facility – the first time a licence application has been considered for a third-generation laser enrichment technology."

The next stage in the licensing process will be a mandatory public hearing by the NRC Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB), which is to be held in Wilmington in July. The ASLB will then submit its recommendations to the NRC, which is expected to make a final decision on issuing a licence by the end of August 2012. In addition to allowing the plant to be built and operated, the licence would also authorize GLE to possess and use special nuclear material, source material, and byproduct material at the facility for a period of 40 years.

Should GLE construct the plant, 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.

GE holds a 51% majority ownership stake in GLE, while Hitachi holds a 25% stake and Cameco 24%.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News