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Laser enrichment update: NRC issues license

27 Sep 2012

US Nuclear Regulatory Commission gives go-ahead for GE-Hitachi venture to build a first-of-a-kind facility.

The General Electric/Hitachi venture Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) has received official assent to build what would become the world’s first commercial laser uranium enrichment facility.

Following just a week after the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) initial decision to give the go-ahead, the same body issued a license to GLE on September 25. In its official notice, the NRC said:

“The license authorizes GLE to enrich uranium up to 8 percent by weight in the fissile isotope 235U, using a laser-based technology. This low-enriched uranium will be used in fuel for commercial nuclear power reactors. GLE plans to construct the plant at the site of GE-Hitachi’s existing Global Nuclear Fuel-America’s fuel fabrication plant.”

GLE, which submitted its license application in June 2009, welcomed the decision, with CEO Chris Monetta saying in a statement: “The technology we’ve developed could be one of the keys to the nation’s long-term energy security. At a minimum, it could provide a steady supply of uranium enriched right here in the US to the country’s nuclear reactors. These reactors provide approximately 20 percent of the nation’s electricity today and will continue to be an important part of the energy mix for decades to come.”

At present, most of the enriched uranium used in US nuclear reactors comes either from foreign or government-backed sources, GLE says.

However, the company is non-committal on exactly when construction of a laser facility might begin, merely stating: “The next step in the process is for the company to make a commercialization decision. This decision will be based on several factors.”

“Seminal moment”
Silex Systems, the Australian company upon whose technology the Wilmington laser facility would be based, certainly appears confident that the project will go ahead. In a statement its CEO and long-time laser enrichment specialist Michael Goldsworthy said that the NRC license represented a “seminal moment” in the history of the nuclear industry, adding:

“After more than 40 years of international research and billions of dollars invested by various governments and companies around the world in a race to achieve laser uranium enrichment, Silex and GLE are very proud to be the only successor in this incredibly challenging technological endeavor.”

Along with colleague Horst Struve, Goldsworthy developed the laser enrichment technology with financial and technical backing from the US Enrichment Corporation (USEC) between 1996 and 2002, under an agreement struck by the US and Australian governments.

According to a report written by John Lyman of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and available via the web site of the Federation of American Scientists, the process relies on several pulsed CO2 sources that are Raman-converted to produce emission at 16 µm – suitable for separating uranium isotopes by selective laser excitation of 235U within the uranium hexafluoride feed material.

A weakness of the approach identified at the time of that report was that the lasers could only produce the required frequency at a 50 Hz pulse repetition rate and a “duty factor” of 1% - meaning that 99% of the uranium feed material remained unprocessed.

“A working enrichment plant would require large improvements in the laser repetition rate,” Lyman wrote, adding that a mature laser enrichment facility would require the capability to increase that rate by more than an order of magnitude, and deliver laser pulse energies in the region of 1 J.

Public meeting
The potential for Silex’s laser isotope separation process to provide a more efficient way to enrich uranium, on home soil and in more compact facilities than is possible with current centrifuge-based systems, is clearly an attractive one from the nuclear energy industry’s perspective. But it is also one that has raised concerns about the proliferation of fissile material.

Responding to those concerns, which had been raised by Congress and the American Physical Society among others during the course of the NRC’s licensing process, GLE said: “The company has worked with the NRC, Departments of State and Energy and independent non-proliferation experts, for several years, to ensure the security of this technology and has met, and in many cases exceeded, all regulations pertaining to safeguarding this technology.”

Some public opposition to the proposed facility would seem inevitable, however, and the NRC said that it would hold a public meeting in Wilmington before any site building begins, to explain its oversight plans for inspections during construction and operation.

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