Silex pulls out of US laser enrichment project

22 June 2018

Sydney-based Silex is seeking to repatriate its Silex laser isotope separation process technology to Australia, after pulling out of plans to acquire a majority stake in GE-Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) which included a proposed plant to be built near the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Paducah site in Kentucky, for commercialisation of Silex technology. It also intends to terminate GLE's exclusive licence for the technology, but said it will consider exploring commercialisation of the technology with third parties in other countries should opportunities arise if market conditions improve.

In 2016, GE-Hitachi (GEH) said it intended to leave the GLE joint business venture, which comprises GE (51%), Hitachi (25%) and Cameco (24%), and was the exclusive licensee for the laser isotope separation process technology developed in the 1990s. In May 2016, Silex and GEH had agreed to negotiate a restructuring of GLE, with Silex potentially acquiring GEH's 76% interest. However, Silex said on 12 June that there remained too many risks associated with GLE's business case, and investment in GLE, with the entailed ongoing expenditure, would not be in its shareholders' interests.

Silex CEO Michael Goldsworthy expressed disappointment, noting that after 20 years of cooperative development with the US, the project was just three years from achieving demonstration of full-scale operation. He attributed the decision to “the continuing decline in the nuclear fuel markets precipitated by the tragic events of Fukushima in 2011, in combination with unresolved issues relating to the GLE restructure and the associated cash burn”.

Silex has given notice for the termination of a term sheet on the proposed acquisition bringing an end to its monthly funding obligations of about AUD600,000 ($455,000) for GEH's operations. Silex also said it will give notice to GLE of the termination of the SILEX technology licence "unless circumstances change dramatically in the short term".

In 2012 GLE received a construction and operation licence from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the first ever full-scale laser enrichment facility after it completed a test loop demonstration of the Silex (Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation) concept at its facility in Wilmington, North Carolina. DOE in November 2016 agreed to sell around 300,000 tonnes of depleted uranium hexafluoride to GE Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) for re-enrichment at the proposed facility.

Among the factors leading to Silex’s decision were: the need for external funding to support the Wilmington development; the risks relating to market access and project financing in connection with the proposed commercial plant at Paducah; and continuing delays and uncertainty regarding the passage of a US congressional bill that would have guaranteed GLE's rights to sell natural-grade uranium from the processing of its tails inventories into the market at "acceptable" rates.  However, Silex said the "worsening outlook" for the global nuclear fuel market was the overarching factor contributing to the decision. Silex is continuing to fund development of commercial-scale laser systems at its Lucas Heights facility in Sydney. 



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