Following the announcement that GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy plans to pull out of Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), Australian company Silex Systems is considering taking an equity position in GLE, which is the exclusive licensee for its laser uranium enrichment technology. GLE is a joint venture between GE (51%), Hitachi (25%) and Cameco (24%) and has exclusive rights to commercially develop the SILEX laser isotope separation process technology developed by Silex Systems under an agreement signed in 2006.
In 2012, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted the company a construction and operation licence for a full-scale laser enrichment facility - the first ever grant for such a plant. A test loop demonstration was successfully completed at GLE's facility in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 2012. This was the first phase of a three-phase programme to commercialise the technology - The second phase, including economic and engineering validation for the initial commercial production module, also began in 2012.
GLE was selected by the US Department of Energy (DOE) to enter contract negotiations on the construction of a laser enrichment plant at the DOE's former gaseous enrichment site at Paducah, Kentucky to re-enrich its inventory of high-assay depleted uranium tails. Negotiations are continuing, but activities slowed in 2014 when GLE underwent restructuring.
GE-Hitachi's decision to exit GLE was prompted by a change in business priorities at GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy. Silex Systems CEO Michael Goldsworthy said: "Whilst this is disappointing, we are encouraged by interest from within the nuclear industry and opportunities that may eventuate once the nuclear fuel markets recover from the current downturn."
Silex Systems is now considering increasing its direct participation in the project and is negotiating a term sheet with GE-Hitachi that would effectively give Silex the option to take an equity position in GLE, the company said in a statement. Silex also said that it is "reviewing the possibility" of contributing up to AUD10m ($7.8m) in funding for ongoing activities at its laser facility at Lucas Heights, Sydney and at GLE's Wilmington facility to ensure that the current budget for 2016 continues to be adequately supported while discussions continue with potential investors. Silex Systems noted that Cameco"remains supportive of the Silex efforts".
While there is currently "no guarantee of obtaining new investors for GLE given current market conditions", Silex said it "remains positive" with respect to the medium-term prospects for the technology, particularly with the Paducah commercial plant opportunity".