Laser enrichment for 100,000 tons of Paducah tails

World Nuclear News – The US Department of Energy (DoE) is in preliminary discussions with Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) about establishing a laser enrichment facility at the site of the Paducah gaseous diffusion plant in Kentucky.

GE signed an exclusive commercialization and license agreement with Australia’s Silex Systems for the SILEX (Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation) uranium enrichment technology in early 2006. GLE was issued with a construction and operation licence in September for a full-scale laser enrichment facility in Wilmington, North Carolina.

According to Silex Systems, the DoE has started talks with GE-Hitachi (GEH) subsidiary GLE to evaluate the possibility of building another laser enrichment plant at the Paducah site to enrich its stockpiles of high-assay depleted uranium tails. The DoE owns some 100,000 tonnes of such tails, which are stored at Paducah as well as at the shut down Portsmouth diffusion enrichment plant in Ohio.

Wise-Uranium – During the enrichment process in uranium enrichment plants, the percentage of the fissile uranium isotope uranium-235 is raised from its natural 0.71% to a reactor grade of 3.2% (for BWRs) or 3.6% (for PWRs). This process not only produces the enriched product, but also a waste stream depleted in uranium-235, typically to 0.3%.
The degree of depletion of uranium-235 in this depleted uranium waste (the “tails assay”) is a parameter that can be adjusted to economical needs, depending on the cost of fresh natural uranium and on the enrichment cost. Uranium tails typically have 0.3% uranium or about 40% of the uranium in natural uranium.

Laser enrichment is more efficient and lower cost than other types of enrichment. The laser enrichment could thus economically enrich the uranium tails that would otherwise be waste.

The DoE has been evaluating opportunities for the Paducah plant after May 2013, when operations at USEC’s diffusion plant there are expected to end. These include the possibility of private companies operating the facility as a commercial uranium enrichment facility.

Silex Systems noted, “Access to existing infrastructure at Paducah could realise significant cost savings and reduce the overall time to establish a full-scale laser enrichment plant.”

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