GE-Hitachi Exits Nuclear Laser-Based Enrichment Venture

GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy is pulling out of Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), a company that in 2012 got the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) unprecedented approval to build and operate a full-scale laser uranium enrichment facility. The move was precipitated by a change in business priorities, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the GLE’s proprietary SILEX technology is dead.

GLE was born under GE’s banner in early 2006 as it won exclusive rights to commercially develop the SILEX laser isotope separation process technology under an agreement reached with Australia’s Silex Systems Ltd. The technology’s most hailed advantage was efficiency. All enrichment around the world is performed by gas centrifuge technology that was originally developed in the 1940s, and enrichment happens to be the most difficult and costly step in making nuclear fuel for power reactors, because about 35% to 40% of total fuel costs are based on current market prices, Silex explained. SILEX is the “most cost-efficient method,” the company said, noting that it is anticipated to have the lowest capital costs of all enrichment technologies.

Several entities have taken note of these benefits. In October 2006, GE got the U.S. government’s backing to proceed with the technology exchange, prompting Hitachi and Canada’s Cameco to join the venture between 2007 and 2008. GE currently has a 51% share in the venture, Hitachi, 25%, and Cameco, 24%.

The company’s SILEX technology got another boost in September 2012, when the NRC granted GLE a construction and operation license—the first of its kind—for a proposed facility that could be sited on a 1,600-acre tract of land at the company’s global headquarters in Wilmington, N.C., where GLE operated a fuel fabrication plant. The company then embarked on a three-phase program to commercialize the technology, completing the first phase (a test-loop demonstration) in 2013, and beginning the second phase (economic and engineering validation) that same year. The third phase entails building a full-scale commercial production facility.

In 2013, GLE submitted a proposal to establish an additional uranium enrichment facility at the Department of Energy’s Paducah enrichment site in Kentucky (the agency’s first-generation gaseous diffusion plant at that site was closed in May 2013). Negotiations for the GLE facility are reportedly continuing: Silex Systems in February 2016 reported that outcomes were expected “in the next few months.”

Silex has also reported that GE-Hitachi’s Wilmington-based team has made “significant progress with process and engineering improvements, potentially improving process efficiency and economics.” However, the drive to commercialize the technology has seen other hurdles. In 2014, both GLE and Silex Systems underwent restructuring. Silex reduced its workforce by 50%. Meanwhile, GLE hasn’t yet made a decision to build a commercial plant, saying that will be dependent on market conditions (Figure 5).

enrichment

5. Consumed by market forces? GE-Hitachi’s withdrawal from Global Laser Enrichment, a company that has exclusive rights to commercially develop the SILEX laser isotope separation process technology under an agreement reached with Australia’s Silex Systems Ltd., may have a big impact on the third-generation uranium enrichment technology’s future. Courtesy: Silex Systems

And finally, this April, Silex abruptly announced that GE-Hitachi wanted out of the venture, citing business priorities, the slowed pace of SILEX’s commercialization, and market conditions. Silex said it has started reviewing “funding alternatives, and believes that despite difficult market conditions persisting, nuclear industry interest in the SILEX Technology continues.”

One outcome is that Silex could increase its direct participation in development of GLE’s program. Another could involve minority partner Cameco, which has said that it believes “laser enrichment has potential” and will support Silex’s efforts. As for medium-term prospects concerning the Paducah commercial plant, Silex said it remains positive. However, it added, dismally, that “there is no guarantee of obtaining new investors for GLE given current market conditions.”

—Sonal Patel, associate editor