US-based Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), jointly owned by Australia’s Silex Systems (51%) and Canada’s Cameco (49%), has decided against responding to a US Department of Energy (DOE) request for the acquisition of high-assay low-enriched uranium enrichment (HALEU), which is not currently commercially available from US-based suppliers.

In January, DOE issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for uranium enrichment services to help establish a reliable domestic supply of HALEU, which is enriched to between 5% and 20% U-235 and is required by many of the advanced reactor designs currently under development.

GLE is the exclusive licensee of the Silex technology for uranium enrichment. Silex Systems, based at the Australia Nuclear Science & Technology Organisation (ANSTO) in Lucas Heights, Sydney, is developing laser separation of chemical isotopes with the aim of commercialising the technology. The technology commercialisation project is being conducted at GLE’s Wilmington, North Carolina facility and at Silex’s Sydney facility.

Construction of full-scale laser and separator equipment is being deployed at GLE’s Test Loop facility in Wilmington, with the aim of completing a commercial-scale pilot demonstration (Technology Readiness Level 6 – TRL-6) of the SILEX technology by mid-2024. The next step will be construction of the Paducah Laser Enrichment Facility (PLEF) Multi-purpose Production Plant. It is progressing activities to commercial-scale deployment at PLEF, which is underpinned by a 2016 agreement for the sale to GLE of some 200,000 tonnes of depleted uranium hexafluoride from DOE to provide feedstock for the production of natural UF6.

In addition to the production of natural grade UF6 (containing 0.7% uranium-235) from the processing of depleted uranium, the multipurpose plant has two other commercialisation options: the production of enriched uranium from natural UF6 to supply enriched uranium fuel for existing reactors; and the production of HALEU.

Silex says GLE's evaluation has determined that the RFP "does not warrant GLE changing from its first commercial priority" of producing natural UF6. PLEF's planned annual output of up to 5m pounds of U3O8 (1923 tU) would place it in the top ten global uranium mines in terms of production volumes.

The decision to decline the RFP reflects Cameco's latest Management’s Discussion & Analysis (MD&A) document, published in February, which said "our view is that re-enriching US government inventories of depleted uranium tails into a commercial source of uranium and conversion is GLE's lowest-risk path to the market", adding that the agreement with the DOE to upgrade depleted uranium tails resulting from historic enrichment operations "may help address the growing supply gap for Western nuclear fuel supplies and services".

Silex said GLE is "currently awaiting details" on a potential $100m funding opportunity from DOE to support novel enrichment technology, which is expected later this year. It also noted that the US Consolidated Appropriations Act 2024, which has now been signed into law, includes $2.7bn of funding. This is contingent on a US government ban on imports of nuclear fuel from Russia, which is expected to provide support for production of both low-enriched uranium and HALEU.

"We continue to encourage the DOE to move expeditiously to publish all available funding opportunities to create a competitive, diverse US fuel supply chain and to enable the cessation of reliance on Russian-sourced nuclear fuel," Silex said.

Meanwhile, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has completed an inspection of GLE's Test Loop pilot demonstration facility and operational safety programmes in Wilmington giving approval for GLE to load UF6 feed material in preparation for the start of TRL-6 enrichment testing. TRL-6 is the sixth of nine internationally recognised technology readiness levels used to assess the maturity of a technology. TRL-6 confirms large-scale system performance under relevant conditions (pilot-scale demonstration).

Silex said the NRC approval clears the way for the final preparations for TRL-6 enrichment testing, which is expected to begin in the second quarter of this year, GLE anticipates completing the technology demonstration project this year. "Subject to the successful completion of the TRL-6 pilot demonstration project, industry and government support, a feasibility assessment for the Paducah Laser Enrichment Facility, suitable market conditions, and other factors, this preserves the option to commence commercial operations at the planned PLEF in Kentucky as early as 2028," Silex added.

Image: Silex's laser uranium enrichment technology (courtesy of Silex Systems)