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 will finance, construct, own and operate the Paducah Laser Enrichment Facility, which will 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”.