Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), jointly owned by Australia’s Silex Systems (51%) and Canada’s Cameco (49%), have approved GLE’s operating plan and budget for calendar year (CY) 2024 that enables the continuation of accelerated activities to commercialise the Silex uranium enrichment technology.

GLE says the CY2024 plan and budget involves an approximate doubling of project expenditures compared with CY2023 to $54.5m. In addition to acceleration of the technology demonstration project, this will allow GLE to press ahead with other commercialisation activities, including acquisition activities at the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Paducah site in Kentucky, NRC commercial plant licensing activities, and completion and commissioning of the new GLE corporate and manufacturing facility in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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.

The DOE’s Paducah site hosted the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, constructed in 1952 to produce enriched uranium, initially for nuclear weapons and later for NPP fuel. Commercial enrichment was conducted under lease from 1993 until 2013 when operations ceased, and the gaseous diffusion facilities were transferred to the DOE Environmental Management (EM) programme. EM has conducted extensive cleanup activities at the site since the late 1980s and is currently deactivating the plant facilities with the aim of releasing the site for industrial and community development. GLE is seeking to acquire parts of the site for the PLEF.

DOE agreed in 2016 to sell GLE around 300,000 tonnes of depleted uranium hexafluoride to provide the feedstock for PLEF to produce uranium hexafluoride (UF6) equivalent to natural uranium over three decades. The plant's annual output of up to 5m pounds of U3O8 (1923 tU) will be sold on the global uranium market.

Since February 2023, Silex and GLE have continued to accelerate construction of full-scale laser and separator equipment at the Wilmington Test Loop facility GLE says attaining the TRL-6 level is a key milestone in the de-risking of the Silex technology before the focus turns to the potential preparation for, and construction of the uranium enrichment plant at the PLEF.

Following commissioning activities, the pilot demonstration facility is expected to be put into service as in the second quarter of 2024. “Continued acceleration of GLE’s commercialisation activities beyond CY2023 will preserve the option of commencing commercial operations at the planned PLEF as early as 2028, up to three years earlier than originally planned.” However, GLE noted that continued acceleration “is subject to market factors and the level of support forthcoming from various government and industry initiatives”.

According to GLE, two key factors are driving potential transformation of the global nuclear fuel supply chain, presenting a ‘Triple Opportunity’ to produce three different grades of nuclear fuel using Silex laser-based uranium enrichment technology at the proposed PLEF plant.

  • The shift towards utilisation of nuclear power by many countries in response to heightened concerns over global climate change;
  • The impact of the conflict in Ukraine “which threatens to disrupt the significant supply of Russian nuclear fuel to the US and other Western markets.

The Triple Opportunity could involve:

  • Production of natural grade UF6 (with U-235 assay of 0.7%) via processing of depleted tails (U-235 assays of 0.25% to 0.5%) using Silex technology (the original PLEF project), which would come in the form of already converted uranium, thereby also helping to alleviate UF6 conversion supply pressure;
  • Production of low enriched uranium (LEU – U-235 assays up to 5%) and LEU+ (assays from 5% to 10%) from natural grade UF6 with additional Silex enrichment capacity – to supply fuel for existing reactors;
  • Production of high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU- U-235 assays up to 20%) using Silex enrichment technology to supply fuel for next generation advanced reactors, including SMRs.

GLE notes that, “with Russia currently holding around 45% of the world’s uranium enrichment capacity, there is an urgent need for the Western nuclear industry to minimise or eliminate reliance on the sourcing of enriched nuclear fuel from Russia”. This “opens up the second opportunity for the PLEF facility” while “potential production of HALEU at the PLEF has emerged as a third opportunity as Western nuclear fuel supply chains prepare for the exclusion of Russian-sourced HALEU”.

The CY2024 plan and budget, including accelerated demonstration of the Test Loop pilot facility in Wilmington, preserves the option of commencing commercial operations at the PLEF as early as 2028. GLE anticipates completing the technology demonstration project during CY2024, “which will include the completion of an independent assessment of the TRL-6 pilot demonstration and submission of a report to Silex and Cameco”.

The Technology Commercialisation and License Agreement between Silex and GLE is an exclusive worldwide license for exploitation of the Silex technology for uranium enrichment. The Agreement includes: perpetual royalty of a minimum of 7% payable to Silex on GLE’s enrichment revenues using the Silex technology; $20m in Milestone Payments payable to Silex triggered by commercial development milestones.

The milestones include:

  • Commercial pilot demonstration (TRL-6): $5m
  • Commencement of PLEF Engineering Procurement & Construction (EPC): $5m
  • PLEF commercial operations: $10m

A $15m milestone payment was also received by Silex in July 2013. This was triggered by the successful completion of the Test Loop Phase 1 Program Milestone: Technology Demonstration and Validation. This involved the demonstration of efficient enrichment with the Silex laser technology at the prototype level.

Silex’s CEO & Managing Director Michael Goldsworthy said climate change and geopolitical issues, and market pressure for new Western enrichment capacity “continues to intensify, including proposed legislation to ban the import of Russian uranium products into the United States and a voluntary industry shift away from Russian-sourced nuclear fuel”.

He added that the CY2024 plan and budget “supports the completion of the technology

demonstration project, continued pursuit of government and industry support and funding opportunities, site acquisition activities related to the planned PLEF, preparation of the PLEF NRC licence application, completion and commissioning of GLE’s new facility in Wilmington and activities to support manufacturing readiness and supply chain development”. These activities “provide the potential for GLE to deploy the Silex uranium enrichment technology in a timely manner to help address the forecast supply gap in nuclear fuel markets in the coming years”.

Image: The Paducah site in Kentucky (courtesy of US Department of Energy)