A license issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on Tuesday greenlights operation of a proposed plant that will use laser technology to enrich uranium for fuel in commercial nuclear power reactors. If built as proposed on a 1,600-acre site at General Electric–Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment’s (GLE’s) global headquarters in Wilmington, N.C., where GLE currently operates a fuel fabrication plant, the facility would be one of two new enrichment plants expected to be operational by 2020, even though several others have received NRC approval and federal government funding.

The license allows GLE to enrich uranium up to 8% by weight in the fissile isotope U-235, using a laser-based technology to produce 6 million single work units (SWU) per year. While a “commercialization decision” must still be made and will be based on “several factors,” GLE said in a statement that the license would enable it to build “a first-of-its-kind uranium enrichment facility using lasers conceived of by Australian technology company SILEX and developed by GLE experts.”

“Receiving our NRC license is a tremendous accomplishment and strong testament to everyone involved in this project. 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 U.S. to the country’s nuclear reactors,” said Chris Monetta, president and CEO of Global Laser Enrichment, noting that nuclear reactors supply about 20% of the nation’s electricity.

A majority of enriched uranium made 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, according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA). Only about 5% of uranium is sourced domestically; most of that is mined in New Mexico and Wyoming. 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. About 12.7 million SWU per year are required by the 104 reactors operating in the U.S. today, the WNA estimates.

Though USEC’s own proposed enrichment plant, the American Centrifuge Plant in Piketon, Ohio, was licensed by the NRC in April 2007, it was put on hold in July 2009 after the Department of Energy declined to award the project a $2 billion loan guarantee. This June, USEC reached agreement with the DOE for a $350 million cooperative research and development program that would be 80% funded by the DOE for this purpose.

The NRC has approved licenses for several other enrichment facilities, including Urenco’s $1.5 billion gas centrifuge enrichment plant at Eunice, N.M., and AREVA’s $2 billion Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility, another centrifuge plant. The first phase of Urenco’s plant began operating in mid-2010 and has a capacity of 1.6 million SWU per year; when at full production, as expected in 2015, it will have a capacity of 5.9 million SWU per year. Meanwhile, despite being granted a $2 billion loan guarantee by the DOE in May 2010, AREVA announced in December 2011 that it would put its Eagle Rock facility project on hold for about two years while it seeks another investor.

GLE already has customers lined up if the project proceeds. In October 2007, Exelon and Entergy signed letters of intent to contract for uranium enrichment services from GLE’s laser enrichment plant, and the Tennessee Valley Authority followed suit in August 2010, agreeing to buy $400 million worth of enrichment services from GLE.

GLE submitted its license application on June 26, 2009. A Safety Evaluation Report documented the NRC staff’s conclusions that GLE’s proposed facility “complies with NRC regulations and would not pose an undue risk to the health and safety of workers or the public. The Environmental Impact Statement concluded there would be no significant environmental impacts that would preclude licensing the facility,” the federal regulator said. NRC staff is expected to conduct inspections during the construction and operation of the GLE facility.

Sources: POWERnews, GLE, WNA

—Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine)