Global Laser Enrichment Formally Proposes Uranium Facility for Paducah

GE–Hitachi division Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) has reportedly submitted a nonbinding proposal to establish an additional uranium enrichment facility at the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Paducah enrichment site in Kentucky.

Australian firm Silex Systems, which will provide the laser technology to be used in the proposed plant, said in its half-year operational update that GLE’s proposal is part of an expression of interest submitted to the DOE on Feb. 21 for the enrichment facility in Paducah. The company noted that a preliminary evaluation of an opportunity to establish an additional enrichment plant in Paducah using SILEX technology was announced on Nov. 20.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in September gave GLE a license to operate a previously 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 currently operates a fuel fabrication plant. The license allows GLE to enrich uranium up to 8% by weight in the fissile isotope U-235, using Silex’s Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation (SILEX) technology to produce 6 million single work units (SWU) per year. But GLE has yet to make a commercialization decision. If built, the facility would be one of three new enrichment plants expected to be operational in the U.S. by 2020, even though several others have received NRC approval and federal government funding.

Only one fully operating enrichment plant exists in the nation—USEC’s Paducah facility in Kentucky, a large gaseous diffusion plant that was commissioned in 1952 and which has a capacity of about 8 million SWU per year. But that plant is expected to close down in May 2013. About 12.7 million SWU per year are required by the 104 reactors operating in the U.S. today.

USEC’s own proposed enrichment plant, the American Centrifuge Plant in Piketon, Ohio, was licensed by the NRC in April 2007, but it was put on hold in July 2009 after the DOE declined to award the project a $2 billion loan guarantee. Last June, USEC reached an agreement with the DOE for a $350 million cooperative research and development program that would be 80% funded by the DOE for this purpose. In November, the DOE agreed to provide an additional $45.7 million in federal funding for the program. The program supports building, installing, operating, and testing commercial plant support systems and a 120-machine cascade that would be incorporated in the full commercial plant in Piketon, which is planned to operate 96 identical cascades. USEC says the program is "within budget and on-schedule."

A majority of enriched uranium used to produce nuclear fuel in the U.S. is imported, with about half of it coming from Russian weapons-grade uranium that is downblended to a low-enriched uranium in Russia. Only about 5% of uranium is sourced domestically; most of it is mined in New Mexico and Wyoming.

Sources: POWERnews, Silex Systems, NRC

Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine, @Sonalcpatel)