The US Department of Energy (DOE) has agreed to sell around 300,000t of depleted uranium hexafluoride to GE Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) for re-enrichment at a proposed plant to be built near DOE's Paducah site in Kentucky. The agreement paves the way for commercialisation of Silex (Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation) laser enrichment technology.
GLE was selected by the DOE in 2013 to enter contract negotiations on the construction of a laser enrichment plant at the Paducah former gaseous enrichment to re-enrich its inventory of high-assay depleted uranium tails. The tails, resulting from previous enrichment operations, contain a lower proportion of uranium-235 than in naturally occurring uranium but can potentially be re-enriched for use in nuclear fuel.
GLE will finance, construct, own and operate the Paducah Laser Enrichment Facility, which will be a commercial enrichment plant licensed by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Re-enrichment of the 300,000t of tails would take place over 40 years, producing around 100,000t of "natural-grade" uranium which would be sold into the world uranium market. The balance of the material - low assay tails - would be returned to the DOE for disposal.
Australian company Silex Systems Ltd, which developed the technology, said the production rate of the Paducah facility and the subsequent sale of uranium into the market is likely to be regulated by the US government at around 2,000 tU a year, equivalent to a mine producing around 5m lbs U3O8 a year.
Silex said that subject to "timely completion" of the technology commercialisation program, prevailing market conditions and regulatory approvals, construction of the Paducah plant could take place in the "early 2020s". Silex and GLE are also investigating the possibility of using a US government loan guarantee facility to support the financing of the project, the company said.
GLE is a joint business venture comprising GE (51%), Hitachi (25%) and Cameco (24%). Earlier this year GE Hitachi announced plans to reduce its equity interest in GLE and in April signed a term sheet with Silex giving the Australian company an exclusive option to acquire GE Hitachi's entire 76% interest in GLE. Silex said the restructuring of GLE continues, and discussions are under way with several potential strategic investors.
In 2012, the US NRC granted GLE a combined construction and operating licence for a laser enrichment plant of up to 6m separative work units at Wilmington, North Carolina. GLE has successfully demonstrated the concept in a test loop at Global Nuclear Fuel's Wilmington fuel fabrication facility but has not yet decided whether to proceed with a full-scale commercial plant.