GE-Hitachi to exit laser enrichment JV

19 April 2016

Australian company Silex Systems is considering taking an equity position in Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), the exclusive licensee for its laser uranium enrichment technology, after GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy announced its intention to exit the company.  

GLE is a joint venture between GE (51%), Hitachi (25%) and Cameco (24%) and has exclusive rights to commercially develop the SILEX laser isotope separation process technology developed by Silex Systems under an agreement signed in 2006.

In 2012, the company received a construction and operation licence for a full-scale laser enrichment facility - the first ever granted anywhere for such a plant - from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The first phase of a three-phase program to commercialize the technology - a test loop demonstration - was successfully completed at GLE's facility in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 2012. The second phase of the program, including economic and engineering validation for the initial commercial production module, began the same year.

GLE was selected by the US Department of Energy (DOE) to enter contract negotiations on the construction of a laser enrichment plant at the DOE's former gaseous enrichment site at Paducah, Kentucky to re-enrich its inventory of high-assay depleted uranium tails. Although those negotiations are continuing, the pace of commercialization activities was slowed in 2014 when GLE underwent restructuring.

Silex Systems CEO Michael Goldsworthy said that the relationship had been a productive one and that his company respected GE-Hitachi's decision to exit GLE, which was precipitated by a change in business priorities at GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy. "Whilst this is disappointing, we are encouraged by interest from within the nuclear industry and opportunities that may eventuate once the nuclear fuel markets recover from the current downturn," he said. "We believe this is a game-changing technology which can enter the market and make a difference to nuclear fuel economics as nuclear power inevitably comes back into favour in an emissions constrained world," he added.

In response to GE-Hitachi's decision, Silex Systems is considering increasing its direct participation in the development project and is negotiating a term sheet with GE-Hitachi that would effectively give Silex the option to take an equity position in GLE, the company said in a statement. No information was given on the timing of GE-Hitachi's exit from GLE, but Silex said that the material terms of any GLE restructure will be announces as soon as discussions are finalized.

Silex also said that it is "reviewing the possibility" of contributing up to AUD 10 million ($7.8 million) of funding for ongoing activities at its laser facility at Lucas Heights, Sydney and at GLE's Wilmington facility to ensure that the current budget for 2016 continues to be adequately funded while discussions are held with potential investors.

Laser enrichment uses a laser beam to preferentially excite the uranium-235 isotope in gaseous uranium hexafluoride, which can then be separated. Its proponents claim that it has the potential to be more efficient than the centrifuge enrichment technology that is currently used to produce enriched uranium on a commercial scale. The principles of the SILEX (Separation of Isotopes by Laser EXcitation) process were formulated by Goldsworthy and Horst Struve in the early 1990s, but the technology is classified under US and Australian law.

Cameco, which acquired a 24% share in GLE in 2008, remains supportive of the project. "We continue to believe laser enrichment has potential and are supporting Silex’s efforts to restructure and secure new investment," a Cameco spokesman told World Nuclear News.

Silex said that it "remains positive" with respect to the medium-term prospects for the technology, particularly with the Paducah commercial plant opportunity. "That said, at this point in time there is no guarantee of obtaining new investors for GLE given current market conditions," it said.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News