GE and Hitachi are building the first commercial-scale U-235 laser enrichment facility licensed for production. It will use an Australian-developed laser enrichment technology known as Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation (SILEX). Currently Silex has completed its phase I test loop program at GE-Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment’s (GLE) facility in North Carolina. When the commercial plant is built, its target enrichment level will be 8 percent, which puts it on the upper end of low-enriched uranium. SILEX is only one of a number of new approaches that have been investigated for uranium enrichment.
Details of the SILEX are classified under the provisions of the US Atomic Energy Act. So while we don’t have the whole story on the details of the process, it’s reasonable to assume that only about three stages of enrichment are needed to produce five percent enriched uranium from ore, and only about seven stages to produce fully weapons-grade enriched uranium. Estimates suggest that a laser-based uranium enrichment plant would have an initial cost, size, and power requirement about one-fifth that of an equivalent centrifuge-based enrichment plant. The operating cost would also be expected to be far smaller.
Simpler, smaller, and less costly are characteristics that give laser enrichment of isotopes major potential to reduce the cost of nuclear power. However, these same characteristics also make such processes pose a substantial danger for widespread proliferation.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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