A US government deal to sell 300,000 t of depleted uranium is set to open the door to commercialising a next-generation enrichment process.
The Silex – or separation of isotopes by laser excitation – process was developed by Australian researchers in the mid 1990s, and is described as a third generation uranium enrichment technology after first-generation gaseous diffusion and second-generation centrifuge separation techniques. The technology is being commercialised under license by GE-Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), and is said to have a number of advantages over existing techniques, including being more efficient and having a smaller environmental footprint. Security restrictions and the proprietary nature of the technology mean details about how it works remain limited.
Technology-developer and Silex CEO Michael Goldsworthy has described GLE’s deal to buy depleted uranium from the US Department of Energy (DOE) as “a pivotal step in the path to commercialisation” of the process. Demonstration of the technology and commercial plant licence approval was completed in 2013, with economic and engineering validation for the initial commercial production module commencing the same year. Plans are for GLE to construct and operate a “billion-dollar” laser enrichment facility near the DOE’s Paducah Gaseous Diffusion plant in Kentucky, which was built in the 1950s and ceased operations in 2013. Silex says construction could begin the in the early 2020s, with DOE adding that the along with operations the facility could create 800–1,200 jobs.
The new plant will re-enrich ‘uranium tails’ left over from legacy enrichment operations, converting the 300,000 t of tails into 100,000 t of natural grade uranium over at least 40 years for sale to the civil nuclear power sector. The leftover tails from the laser enrichment process will be returned to the DOE to dispose.
Silex says it expects the government will cap sales to the uranium market at 2,000 t/y, worth around US$200m in sales at today’s prices.
US energy secretary Ernest Moniz said: “The sale contributes to two key Energy Department mission areas – to fulfill 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.”
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