US DOE sells depleted uranium for laser enrichment

11 November 2016

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has agreed to sell around 300,000 tonnes of depleted uranium hexafluoride to GE Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) for re-enrichment at a proposed plant to be built near DOE's Paducah site in Kentucky. The agreement paves the way for commercialisation of Silex laser enrichment technology.

GLE was selected by the DOE in 2013 to enter contract negotiations on the construction of a laser enrichment plant former at the former gaseous enrichment site at Paducah, Kentucky to re-enrich its inventory of high-assay depleted uranium tails. The tails, left over from previous enrichment operations, contain a lower proportion of uranium-235 than in naturally occurring uranium but can potentially be re-enriched for use in nuclear fuel.

GLE would finance, construct, own and operate the Paducah Laser Enrichment Facility, which would be a commercial enrichment plant licensed by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Re-enrichment of the 300,000 tonnes of tails would take place over 40 years, producing around 100,000 tonnes of "natural-grade" uranium which would be sold into the world uranium market. The balance of the material - low assay tails - would be returned to the DOE for disposition.

Sometimes described as third-generation technology, laser enrichment processes promise improved efficiency and lower costs than the centrifuge enrichment plants in operation today. Silex stands for Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation.

Australian company Silex Systems Ltd, which developed the technology, said the production rate of the Paducah facility and the subsequent sale of uranium into the market is likely to be regulated by the US government at around 2000 tU per year, equivalent to a mine producing around 5 million pounds U3O8 per year.

Silex said that subject to "timely completion" of the technology commercialisation program, prevailing market conditions and regulatory approvals, construction of the Paducah plant could take place in the "early 2020s". Silex and GLE are also investigating the possibility of using a US government loan guarantee facility to support the financing of the project, the company said.

US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said the agreement furthered the DOE's environmental clean-up mission while reducing clean-up costs, creating local jobs and supporting an "economical" enrichment enterprise. "The sale contributes to two key Energy Department mission areas – to fulfil the federal government's responsibility to manage the safe storage and disposal of nuclear materials and to enable nuclear power, America's largest source of zero-carbon energy and an important enabler for reduced greenhouse gas emissions," he said.

Pivotal step

GLE is a joint business venture of GE (51%), Hitachi (25%) and Cameco (24%). Earlier this year GE Hitachi announced its desire to reduce its equity interest in GLE and in April signed a termsheet with Silex giving the Australian company an exclusive option to acquire GE Hitachi's entire 76% interest in GLE.

Silex said the restructuring of GLE continues to progress. Discussions under way with several potential strategic investors, some of whom are currently engaged in due diligence activities, the company said.

"The finalisation of the agreement with the DOE is a pivotal step in the path to commercialisation for our unique third generation Silex laser enrichment technology. We wish to thank federal, state and local partners, including the DOE, the state of Kentucky and the city of Paducah for supporting this opportunity," Michael Goldsworthy, Silex CEO, said.

GLE president and CEO Bob Crate said the completion of the agreement was an important step for the company. "Securing the right to acquire depleted uranium hexafluoride from the Department of Energy is a key factor in GLE's plans to potentially license, construct and operate the Paducah laser enrichment facility," he said.

In 2012, the US NRC granted GLE a combined construction and operating licence for a laser enrichment plant of up to 6 million separative work units at Wilmington, North Carolina. GLE has successfully demonstrated the concept in a test loop at Global Nuclear Fuel's Wilmington fuel fabrication facility but has not yet decided whether to proceed with a full-scale commercial plant there.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News